Sydney Sevens | Saturday 6 February – Sunday 7 February | Allianz Arena
After an intriguing stop off in Wellington, that saw the All Blacks win their third consecutive title on home soil, the HSBC Sevens series rolls into picturesque Sydney for two days of high tempo rugby.
This year’s series has been fascinating to say the least, with three different teams winning the first three tournaments.
Will a fourth different nation win the Australian leg or will Fiji, New Zealand, or South Africa claim their second tournament win of the year?
To Win Outright
New Zealand 7/4
South Africa 2/1
Pool Opponents: Australia, Portugal, Canada
While Gordon Tietjens will be ecstatic about his side claiming their first victory of the season last week, I honestly think the Kiwis' veteran coach will view the victory as one of the luckiest of his coaching career. His side were outplayed by the Blitzbokke in the final but some atrocious refereeing of the breakdown – where New Zealand were virtually allowed to do whatever they fancied without repercussion – effectively gave the All Blacks the title.
While referee Matt 'O Brien was probably the Kiwis' stand out player during the tournament, the likes of Reiko Ioane, Akira Ioane, Joe Webber, and Ardie Savea all put in solid displays. The verdict is still out on Sonny Bill-Williams’ showing, however. The big man had his moments in the tournament, including that delicate little backhand pass that helped New Zealand overcome the South Africans in their pool match, but he also threw a few howlers. I know this may sound extremely contradicting as sevens is the code of the game in which we see the most 50/50 passes thrown, but I honestly think Williams needs to be more conservative in the future. His attempts at a trademark out of the back of the hand offload in the final lead to the Blitzbokke being gifted a try.
If Williams can reign in his game a bit and Webber and co put in similar displays to what they produced last week then Gordon Tietjens' side may be in with a sniff of winning their second tournament of the year.
Player To Watch: Joe Webber
Webber was in fine fettle last weekend, leaving opponents for dead with his lethal side step. With the New Zealand squad being decimated by injuries and some of their 15’s converts still adjusting to the rigours of sevens, Webber is going to have a huge role to play this coming weekend.
Pool Opponents: Argentina, Samoa, France
As was the case in Cape Town, the Fijians looked fantastic during the group stage of the tournament but as soon as it got to the knockout stuff they seemed to lose the plot. They came into their cup semi-final against South Africans as favourites to advance to the final but a horrendous display saw them go down by 31 points to nil. They did manage to secure some vital series log points by winning the Cup third and fourth playoff match against England.
The Fijians will have to be a lot more focused if they are to win the Sydney tournament. They have an abundance of quality rugby players in their squad but if they're not mentally prepared then they might as well give up all hope of winning another tournament.
Coach Ben Ryan has taken a hard line with his squad this week citing their showing in New Zealand as simply not good enough. The former England Sevens mentor will be hoping this approach shakes a bit of drive and focus into his team. If he does manage to get his charges mindsets right, then his side will be a real threat at this tournament.
Player To Watch: Jerry Tuwai
The Fijian playmaker spent the majority of last week’s tournament on the bench. The reason for his bit part role is his ill-discipline. Despite his flaws, Tuwai is a world beater on his day. He’s a fantastic reader of the game and his distribution skills are second to none. If the big man is fully focused then he’ll make a big impact for this Fijian side in Sydney.
Pool Opponents: Kenya, Scotland, Russia
I wouldn't blame any of the Blitzbokke squad for blaming last week's Cup final defeat solely on the referee. The men in green played their absolute hearts out, and deserved to win that final, but I suppose that's sport for you.
Despite their agonising final defeat, I fully expect Neil Powell's charges to not dwell on the past but rather look to the future, which may well see them all donning winners medals in Sydney this coming weekend.
They played some excellent rugby in Wellington and it looks like this squad is really starting to gel. Francois Hougaard and Juan de Jongh look a lot more comfortable with this code of the game than they did a few months ago. Factor in a pack - or a bunch of loose forwards posing as a front row as I like to view it - that has been brilliant at the set piece and has given opposition sides a hell of a contest at the breakdown and you have a side capable of winning any of this year's tournaments.
Player To Watch: Kwagga Smith
The Lions man had a blinder of a tournament last week and if it wasn’t for some horrid referring in the final, Kwagga may have ended the Hamilton leg of the series with a man of the tournament accolade attached to his name. I expect Smith to be an absolute menace at the breakdown once again this week.
Pool opponents: New Zealand, Portugal, Canada
My general rule when it comes to previewing these tournaments is to focus solely on the three teams who are the favorites with the bookies to win the leg. This week’s a bit different, however. With the Wallabies in front of their home crowd and some decent odds on them for a win, I’ve decided to factor them into the equation.
The Aussies have young and competent squad who are capable of taking a mile if given an inch. They will also have home ground advantage and a partisan crowd behind. And while they’ve been drawn in a tough pool, I think they’ll advance to the cup quarter-finals as pool runners-up, and from there on in it generally becomes a bit of a lottery with regards to who will contest the final.
Player To Watch: Tom Lucas
Okay, Lucas may not be the most exciting of players but he does bring consistency to this Australian side. His passing is superb and his decision making, while not that adventurous, is generally spot on. He will have a big role to play if this Wallabies sevens side is to deliver in front of what sure to be a festive Allianz Arena crowd.
Verdict: South Africa 2/1
After last week’s refereeing debacle, I can picture the Blitzbokke coming to Sydney with the bit between their teeth. If they can see off the Kenyans in their pool game then the South Africans should have an extremely easy quarter-final draw and possibly a semi-against one of the other groups runners. Back the Blitzbokke to go all the way.
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