The World Series teams have embarked on a new adventure in Sydney as the Aussie 7's moved down from the Gold Coast this season! The tourney is sold out and the Australian Rugby Union has done a fantastic job promoting the new site!
New Zealand managed to comeback in the second half of the final, just getting by South Africa to defend their home turf in Wellington last weekend. Let's take a peek at this weekend's pools & see what's in store!
POOL A: Australia, New Zealand, Canada & Portugal.
The Aussies bring a few reinforcements back into the squad for their home tourney. Cameron Clark is fit & ready to roll again while the always dangerous ACT Brumby flyer Henry Speight is on board as well. Quade Cooper is out however.
New Zealand were able to find a way last weekend thanks both to their talent level & excellent coaching/roster management. While the offensive talent is obvious, the work that needs to be done on defensive cohesion is evident as well. NZ is by far the best side in the pool & should be a handful for the second place team in Pool D.
Canada had a great chance to advance last week with the Aussies down a few men on the roster & they almost converted, losing 26-22. With the additions in gold & the home field advantage, their job gets tougher in Sydney. The Canadians will be focused on taking care of the ball, something they didn't do at critical junctures last weekend.
Portugal looked a thousand times better in Wellington than in Dubai or Cape Town this season. Their attack & defense were miles steadier. The familiar faces of Aderito Esteves & Pedro Leal were joined at the forefront of Portugal's attack by Tiago Fernandes (4 tries in Wellington, including the fan favorite against Australia). They'll be looking to convert their improved play into victories, especially on Day Two to gain those critical Series points in the relegation battle.
POOL B: South Africa, Kenya, Scotland & Russia
Despite losing the final, the Blitzboks put on an incredible performance in Wellington & with a bit of fortune, would have won the day. Their defensive performance in the semis against Fiji will long live in tour lore as one of the great lockdown efforts. Despite the long list of injuries, South Africa has proven that their program has depth & character. That resolve will go a long way towards winning the 2015-16 HSBC World Series as well as Rio 2016. Tim Agaba comes into the side for the first time. While everyone marvels at the speed of Seabelo Senatla, the play of Kwagga Smith & Rosko Specman also stood out last weekend in Wellington. High marks for Philip Snyman as Captain as well as tackling force Chris Dry (51 tackles this season, tied for first on tour).
That said, the BlitzBoks will be tough to beat but the Kenyans did just that in Cape Town earlier this season & would love to upset the apple cart by beating their African rivals anytime anywhere. This team has progressed nicely as well & is looking like a consistent Cup Quarter Final side. Their physicality combined with a lower turnover rate has made them difficult for anyone on tour. That may be no surprise, as the Kenyans are the most experienced team on tour with 328 total event appearances.
Scotland & Russia continue to have their fates intertwine on tour. While the Russians are game, they are not yet the strong technical side that Scotland is. The Scots have consistently been a Bowl Final team this year while the Russians did contest the Shield Final last weekend. Every extra point they can snag helps to keep them on tour next season.
POOL C: Fiji, Samoa, Argentina, France
Fiji will be disappointed with their semi-final loss against South Africa in Wellington. However, it was hard not to marvel at how well the men in green played. Tons of pressure was put on the Fijians for a change & their play devolved as the game progressed. While they should win Pool C, their focus may drift a bit to Day Two & the Cup matches. Surely, they'll want another opportunity against South Africa in either the quarters or the final itself. Viliame Mata comes into the squad for Emosi Mulevoro.
Argentina must be wondering what they have to do to avoid Fiji. They did play a tighter game against them in Wellington, but still faltered. The Pumas will have to worry about a strong Samoan challenge this week for the right to advance from Pool C. Samoa Toloa is third on tour in tries scored with 14 & the support game is strong from the Islanders. Also, Samoa did win the Bowl in Wellington! With France down a few key men in Virimi Vakatawa (Selected for the French Six Nations squad) & Terry Bouhraoua (injured foot, not nearly as severe as it first looked thankfully), the door is open for the Samoans to break through to the Cup Quarters.
While the Argentines keep running into Fiji, they have not faced either France or Samoa on tour this season.
POOL D: USA, England, Japan & Wales.
Coach Mike Friday gets another go at his former England side. While the Americans dominated the English in London last year in the semis on their way to winning the tourney, England has managed to have the upper hand lately. They beat the US 19-5 in pool play in Wellington & 24-19 in the Dubai semis. American turnovers have done them in beyond England's strong pressure defense against the US speed threats of Isles & Baker.
Japan continue to show improvement as a side, beating France last week while running Scotland & Wales within a try. In fact, the Wales - Japan match was one of the best shows on tour this season with the Welsh on top, 33-28. If you can, make time to watch the rematch this week as it was compelling offensive rugby!
DAY TWO OUTLOOK
Pools A & B seem simple with New Zealand, Australia, South Africa & Kenya progressing forward. Scotland does have a solid shot against Kenya though. Pool D seems the same with the US & England moving on though both sides need to be very careful. Pool C is much more complicated beyond Fiji. I'm going with my gut over my head & taking Samoa to move on there.
The quarterfinals are set up as:
1st A vs. 2nd D
1st C vs. 2nd B
1st D vs. 2nd A
1st B vs. 2nd C
Top two winners play a semi, bottom two winners play a semi. That being said, the path seems clearest to the final for the Blitzboks if they can hold off Kenya in pool play while New Zealand & Fiji would make a mouth-watering semi. Fiji shut down the men in black in the Dubai semis, 19-5. However, this New Zealand team is far stronger & should edge out a win. I'll take South Africa to win a finals rematch in Sydney.