Our new rugby scribe takes a look at the outright betting for the 2016/17 HSBC World Sevens Series.
Two tournaments down in this season's HSBC Sevens series, and a pecking order is already beginning to emerge amongst the competing nations. The Blitzbokke have dominated the Dubai and Cape Town legs and, if not for a slip-up in the Cape Town Cup final, would be undefeated. They are closely followed on the table by England, with arch-rivals Fiji and New Zealand sitting in third and joint-fourth place respectively.
World Rugby's decision to scrap the former tournament system (whereby teams would compete for the "Shield", "Bowl", "Plate" and "Cup" at each leg) in favor of a new system which mimics the Olympics, has added a fresh new take on the series. The new format comprises of a main cup competition (in which the top two ranked teams from each pool compete), a challenge trophy (for lower ranked sides) and playoffs for the 5th to 13th placed nations (in return for World Series points). In addition, Cup finals have also been shortened from the traditional 20 minutes to the regular 14 minutes.
With eight tournaments still to play, and a host of underperforming sides aiming to shake-off their Olympic hangovers, this season is shaping up to be one of the most memorable yet.
To Win Outright
South Africa 15/10 | Fiji 2/1 | England 15/4 | New Zealand 9/2
The Blitzbokke have made a blistering start to their Sevens campaign, after disappointingly finishing the Rio Olympics with only a Bronze medal in hand. After defeating powerhouse Fiji in the Dubai Cup final, they went on to narrowly lose to the English in the Cup final of the Cape Town leg. If not for this defeat, they would have a 100% record in the series thus far which, when taking into account the competitive nature of this particular sporting code, is a massive achievement.
Neil Powell's men have laid down the marker for the rest of the sides on the circuit, with their mix of raw pace and skill making for incredible viewing. With players of the quality of Justin Geduld, Cecil Afrika and Dylan Sage, the Africans must surely rank as early championship favorites even without the services of former captain Kyle Brown who has been ruled out for the rest of the series with an ACL tear, and the impending absences of Kwagga Smith, Seabelo Senatala and Werner Kok who will all try their hand at Super Rugby once the Sydney leg of this year's circuit concludes.
Player To Watch
Look no further than South Africa's new skipper; Phillip Snyman. The former Cheetah has been a mainstay in the squad for many a season now, and the captaincy is perfectly suited to a player as industrious and hard-working as he. His composure and experience should bode his side well, as they go in search of only their second HSBC World Series crown.
After leaving Brazil with gold medals hanging from their necks, the Flying Fijians would have felt confident ahead of the 2016/17 sevens series, even though livewire coach Ben Ryan had stepped down after the global showpiece. The beginning of the series has proven difficult for the Islanders however, after a solid second-place finish in Dubai was followed up by a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Cape Town.
Osea Kolinisau and his charges still sit in a comfortable third place on the overall table, but will be looking to improve on their rugby fortunes, starting with the Wellington leg that kicks off at the back end of January. With a brand of rugby that always entertains, the Fijian boys will be hungry for more silverware come the end of the series.
Player To Watch
Amongst a host of world class players and despite only being 1.7m, Jerry Tuwai stands tall! His scintillating pace and X-Factor always seems to give Fiji an edge, and his ability to turn a game on its head with a moment of magic never ceases to amaze. The 27-year-old is an integral member of this Fijian side, and he is crucial to their chances this season.
Spear-headed by speedster Dan Norton, the barmy army have looked a class outfit in the first two legs of the season. By following up their bronze medal win in Dubai with a cup final victory in the Mother City, the English have solidified their position as real championship contenders with some sparkling performances thus far.
Under the tutelage of head coach, Simon Armor, and with a great squad mix of youth and experience, the English boast their best chance at staging a consistent run to the title in years. Players such as Phil Burgess and skipper Tom Mitchell will ensure their side doesn't go down without a fight.
Player To Watch
One man who certainly caught the eye for Great Britain at the Olympic Games is 25-year-old Dan Bibby. The talented fly-half is renown for his hard, straight running lines and his uncanny ability to offload in the tackle. His passing game is also a strong point of his, as he proved in the first two tournaments of the season.
Despite underperforming at the Olympics and the Dubai leg, don't bet against the Kiwi's making a comeback charge to the title by season's end. This talented side is still adjusting to life under new managment, after the resignation of former coach and Sevens great, Sir Gordon Tietjens. The All Blacks made a strong statement by finishing third at the Cape Town edition, and currently sit tied for fourth (with Scotland) on the overall log.
This team has the potential to dazzle, and with the likes of DJ Forbes, Tim Mikkelson and Scott Curry in their arsenal, they are certainly one to watch.
Player To Watch
Gilles Kaka has been an ever-present in the New Zealand Sevens setup since his debut in 2013. His deceptive speed and mesmerising goose-step are both trademarks of his game, and he will be looking to give everything he has, as New Zealand go in search of yet another HSBC title.
Verdict: South Africa 15/10
My money is on South Africa to finally match their 2008/2009 season achievement, and take home the title. Although Fiji have a world class side, I think they'll miss Ben Ryan's astute coaching this season. England don't have the consistency to match Fiji or South Africa, while the New Zealanders are going through a transition period after Tietjens' departure. This Blitzboks side has been together for a while now, and that continuity should see them take home the title. Put your money on South Africa this season!