After an exciting weekend in Hong Kong where Fiji took home the Cup and Russia qualified for the tour next season, the squads have only a week to prepare for Tokyo. The test this week is one of stamina & mental toughness as much as skill & strategy.
Before we look forward, let's take a look at where the Olympic Qualifying stands. The top four sides in Series Points at the end of the season qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games:
1. South Africa 110
2. Fiji 108
3. New Zealand 107
4. Australia 84
5. England 78
6. Argentina 64
7. USA 63
The top three look pretty comfortable as far as the Games go & are gunning for the overall Series Championship. Australia's Plate triumph with a Plate Semi-Final win over England gave the men in gold a six point edge with three tour stops left.
Let's take a peek at the pools:
POOL A: Fiji, England, Wales & Hong Kong.
Fiji are clearly the form team in the competition right now and are the defending Tokyo Sevens Champions.
Wales have a solid, young side. Given how difficult England's road was last week with brutal games against Fiji, the USA & Australia, this may be Wales' week for an upset over England in one of the key pool clashes. If Wales can win their match with England, the English will face Fiji in game three while the Welsh face Hong Kong. Hong Kong, while solid, don't have the experience or depth to hang with these three sides just yet.
POOL B: New Zealand, Australia, Scotland & Portugal.
New Zealand have been dominant over Australia recently, have far more talent than Scotland and a score to settle with Portugal after the sides drew in Hong Kong. Given their form was quite poor by their standards last weekend, expect the Blacks to come out with all guns blazing to win the pool.
The key match looks to be Australia vs. Scotland. The Aussies won this matchup 21-5 in Hong Kong but expect a much closer match. If Scotland had their form from the knockout stages in pool play, they may very well have beaten Australia.
While Portugal have improved as the season have gone on, they are missing their best player in Aderito Esteves, who is out via injury. Frankly, they can't afford that loss and it showed in the knockout stage in Hong Kong as they were swept out by France & Kenya.
POOL C: South Africa, USA, Kenya & Canada
One would think that South Africa would be easy favorites for this pool but you'd be wrong given the form of the USA Eagles lately. With speed threats like Carlin Isles & Perry Baker, the States are legit contenders for the Cup these days. The only thing standing in the way of that lofty goal is a bit of consistency. Last weekend, Samoa played an excellent tactical first half against the US & stole a Cup Quarterfinal they were clearly underdogs in. The US won't be looking past rivals Canada nor the Kenyans given the tough time they had with them in Hong Kong. The US went 14-0 down before rallying to win in pool play.
POOL D: Samoa, France, Argentina & Japan.
This may be the most entertaining pool. Samoa rounded nicely into form last weekend by reaching the Cup Semis in Hong Kong. However, they'll have their hands full with two sides they haven't beaten this season. Their last match with Argentina was a 21-21 draw and the French handled them in Wellington last month by seven.
Argentina's game has slipped as the Pumas failed to make the Cup Quarterfinals in Wellington & Las Vegas before getting back in the top eight last weekend. They'll be looking to make a statement along with the French, who bowed out to a superior Scotland side in the Bowl Final.
So, Samoa are coming off their best tourney since the season opener in Australia and are looking at vulnerable sides. Should make for some excellent rugby!
I would mention Japan but their relegation seems to be sealed, down fifteen series points to Portugal with three tourneys left. The Brave Blossoms have won just one Shield semi-final this year and don't have the kind of game breaking talent to compete on tour.
Overall, you'd have to expect Fiji to be the odds on favorites to go back to back. Their pool doesn't look troublesome besides the England match and they'll face a team they can handle easily from Pool D if they qualify for the Cup Quarterfinals. Just the kind of softer path that'll help them on a short turnaround!
I like Canada to win the Shield, Scotland for back to back Bowls & the US to win the Plate after a tough Quarter-final loss to New Zealand.
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