Now that we have new Olympic Rugby Gold Medalists in Australia's ladies, it's time to take a peek at the Men's competition. Whereas the Aussies were strong favorites in the earlier Olympic tourney, this picture is a bit more muddled. Off we go to peek at the pools....
POOL A: Fiji, Argentina, United States of America, Brazil
Yes, Fiji are the two time defending HSBC Sevens World Series Champs on the Men's side. And yes, the Fijians are favorites. And yes, Fiji has absolutely owned Argentina on tour over the past season. However, their matchup with the United States hasn't been as easy. The two sides played an all-time classic where Fiji escaped in extra time in Vancouver earlier in the season and in their last meeting, the USA won 26-19 in the third place game of the London 7's.
Fiji has a lot of assets to bring to the table. Their unpredictability and creativity causes fits for even the most experienced defenses. Their players move well without the ball & have improved all of the weaker areas of their game under Coach Ben Ryan. They are more clinical, make good decisions and are pretty consistent in their focus. Some might say that the pressure of being the first ever gold medalists for Fiji may weigh on them. Given their style of play, I'd say that if any team could take that in stride, it'd be Fiji. That said, this favorite can be beaten with the right effort.
When I look at the United States, I see a team that could easily beat Fiji & lose to Argentina. Under Coach Mike Friday, the side has made dramatic improvements across the board. They won their first ever tournament, ending the 2014-15 campaign with a London 7's title. Madison Hughes led the World Series in overall point scoring. And in Carlin Isles & Perry Baker, the US has two electric scoring threats that most teams dream about. However, consistency of elite play has eluded them. They can beat any team here...or lose to almost any team. The addition of Andrew Durutalo as he returns from duty with the Sunwolves is a massive plus. He's as good as there is at the breakdown and his physicality adds an leadership edge to this team that they need. It's a reason I'm toying with the idea of picking them to win gold.
Argentina is considered the third best team in this pool but is that really the case? The World Series standings clearly show them finishing ahead of the 6th place Americans in fifth last season. Axel Muller is a special talent & can do anything on the pitch and Juan Imhoff's reputation as a big game finisher is well established. And despite their poor record against Fiji, they showed clear signs of closing that gap as the season progressed.
Brazil is here as the host nation and despite their 15's success against the US earlier this year, they are severely outgunned in the talent department when it comes to sevens. Their women have shown much better & deserved that core spot on next year's Women's World Series they won yesterday. The men have some more work to do developing players.
POOL B: South Africa, Spain, Australia, France
It's hard to call a nation like South Africa a sleeper but that's certainly what it feels like. Seabelo Senatla was the tour's leading try scorer with 66. To put that in perspective, the explosive Perry Baker was second with 48. They have a ton of experience, strength in the contact area & play consistently well. They won a tour stop (Cape Town) & had three second place finishes & three third place finishes out of ten stops last season on tour! Juan de Jongh in particular could be the player that gives this side the extra push they need to win gold.
Meanwhile, the Aussies are no slouches either. Fourth place overall in 2015-16 on tour, they added a big time speed merchant in 18 year old Henry Hutchison. Henry responded to his opportunity by playing with much more seasoning that his age would imply. He knows how to finish and that's just what a squad of reliable ball handlers that make excellent decisions needed to become a threat to win any tourney. James Stannard in particular is an excellent choice to have a young player watch on film. He's smart as hell & versatile besides.
And perhaps, France was just as dangerous at the end of the World Series once they had stars Virimi Vakatawa & Terry Bouhraoua back in the fold from Six Nations duty/injury. Vakatawa is a physical specimen who'll test defenses inside & out while Terry can make all the plays, especially at ruck time. His technique is excellent & he's strong and tough to move. They're not the kind of team you want to fall behind & have to catch.
And lastly in this pool, Spain's run through the Olympic Qualification tour in Monaco gripped the rugby world and sent a strong Samoa team that won the Paris 7's only weeks ago home. Yes, they probably are outgunned in this pool but they work very well as a team & have nothing to lose. Fact: they will not play scared. Their presence in this pool will make it tougher for three sides to advance. Only two third place teams of three move on. Point differential will tell the tale and with Brazil in Pool A looking like the easiest defense to breach, a cruel fate may await the loser of France v Australia. Remember, there are eight chairs and 10 teams with a legit shot at the quarterfinals!
POOL C: Kenya, New Zealand, Great Britain, Japan
Kenya were the proud Champions of the Singapore Sevens this season and they present a tough challenge for any side. They combine tremendous athletic ability & strength with a increasingly consistent level of discipline. Have they checked out in a tourney after some early poor performances? Yes. Have they stepped up their play after an early strong performance? Absolutely. Their first match is against Great Britain, a side that hasn't played as much as a unit. If they can win that game, the sky is the limit for them. If they lose it, things could get ugly fast.
And before you scoff at the idea of Kenya beating the Brits, let's remember that England didn't exactly cover themselves in glory on tour this season. In fact, Kenya finished 7th & England 8th in the final standings. Turnovers, injuries & just a general funk went with England from stop to stop this past campaign. Combine that with the fact that all of the other sides have more playing time as a unit than Great Britain does & perhaps the shine is taken off of Team GB. That said, this group does have some excellent players & they're finally 100% all at the same time. Marcus Watson & Dan Norton can finish with anyone and James Rodwell is on the short list for best 7's player at the breakdown. Their ability to be aggressive (especially with Kenya), control time of possession & minimize handling errors will determine their fate. Luckily, that game plan is right up Coach Simon Amor's alley!!
New Zealand is an intriguing pick to win gold. Lots of top flight experience, a squad loaded with winning players, perhaps the best coach in the history of the code as well. That coach, Sir Gordon Tietjens, made a controversial decision to leave star Kurt Baker off the side. Baker had a habit of annoying opponents with his abrasive style of play but is one of the brightest tacticians on tour & has made a habit of making big time plays in crucial situations. His presence will be missed but looking at talent like Reiko & Akira Ioane, anything is possible. These two have the ability to take Rio 2016 over. And I haven't even mentioned 7's stalwart Tim Mikkelson or the great Sonny Bill Williams yet! DJ Forbes is also a World Rugby Hall of Famer at the breakdown.
Japan is the strongest of the three lowest seeds, in my opinion. Lomano Lemeki would start for any team in the world & Lote Tuqiri is as eager to find the try line as ever. Despite playing only half as many stops as core side Portugal, they ended up tied in points on the table! That was thanks to Japan's Cup Quarterfinal appearance in Las Vegas. They drew with England & beat Scotland and Kenya that weekend. Also, Japan won the qualification tourney in Hong Kong & claimed core status on next year's tour. They'll be looking to take care of the ball & stun onlookers with a trip to the final eight here. They are more than capable of it, especially if Kenya reverts to poor habits.
I've been dreading making this decision for weeks but I'm going with my gut and I'm taking New Zealand to win the gold in Rio. I just think that this is the weekend all that talent comes together. I realize the Boks & Fiji have been better, more consistent sides over the course of the season but it's a one off tourney & I'm banking on their special talents to be special this week.
by Dan Mason - @Rugby_Global on Twitter