VICKERMAN: “IT’S GOING TO HEAT UP IN PARIS”

(Via World Rugby)

World Rugby commentator Rob Vickerman assesses the final two rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series as South Africa close in on the title.

Resilience is a word often used in the world of sport, and around this time of year the game of rugby sevens shows a need for an extra dose of that trait to be shining through each and every player, team and squad about to embark on the remaining couplet on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2016-17.

One aspect that becomes very apparent at this stage of the year is how the perhaps less fancied teams have a real chance of coming through and shocking the more known nations on the series. This time last year we had just witnessed Kenya winning the Singapore leg with a typically spirited victory, Samoa won the upcoming Paris leg and Scotland won at the final leg in London. Madness? Perhaps not. The recent final of USA v Canada in Singapore last month may well start to conjure more of the same on order, and let’s hope so.

The aforementioned North American teams have proven on many occasions that they are capable of beating any team – and the skill, determination and sheer belief that these two teams possess not only make them first and second seeds in Paris, but also real contenders. The ‘New World Order’ heading into France provides not only a fresh perspective of a series group draw, but the regular leading nations have been rocked and every team will know they all have a chance to achieve similar feats, especially given the fact many teams wouldn’t be considered ‘full strength.’

DISHED UP IN ASIA

In the aftermath of one of the most hotly contested couplets of  sevens in Hong Kong and Singapore I can remember, it is clear that the year of intensity, travel and physicality seen on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series has taken it’s toll on many of the teams. Some teams were barely patched together by the end of the Singapore Sevens, but that didn’t let up the outstanding action on show, and most certainly won’t hamper the offerings on the European legs as it’s all eyes on the prize for the last two host cities. The European teams geographically nearby are now absorbing the benefits of home comforts – with the southern hemisphere now facing the aspect of jet lag and mental fatigue that can be found on longer stints away from ‘home’.

What is most definitely worth analysing is the wonderful opportunity for the younger and perhaps less experienced players who now find themselves getting a shot at playing against some of the world’s best players on a global stage. For these players, as well as wanting to prove their selection is justified, they are looking at the chance of impressing sufficiently to be considered for next season, which is set to make a massive mark in sevens history.

Not only will there be a Commonwealth Games taking part on the Gold Coast in April (for the lucky teams contesting in it), there is also a Rugby World Cup – as well as another gripping world series. I hope the players have lots of room in their passports, as the game of sevens now provides a simply incredible opportunity for these talented athletes to travel the world, engage with many differing cultures and represent their country while doing so.

ONE HAND ON THE TROPHY FOR SOUTH AFRICA?

The need for these new players to step up and replace proven names is an indication of the quality in depth that is needed in both senior squads and academy style set-ups that can nurture and develop players for this very moment. The continued rise and complete dominance of South Africa this season typifies a squad, team and organisation that has instilled a terrific work ethic and camaraderie many layers deep, which has been vital to their success given the fact they have lost so many players over the series, especially the likes of Kyle Brown, Seabelo Senatla and Kwagga Smith.

They were the first implementers of a full-time programme, and their facilities and infrastructure in Stellenbosch are continuing to set the standard for how nations can embrace a national sevens programme.

Such has been the grip the South Africans have had on the series this year, the calculators will be out come the knockout rounds in the penultimate Paris tournament. Their lead is a formidable 25 points over Fiji, meaning that the Pacific islanders will have to more than likely win both remaining rounds (22 points for a win) and South Africa will have to put in a sub-par performance to not qualify for the knockout rounds.

It is also made all the more spicy as South Africa and Fiji may indeed meet in the quarter-finals should they be alternate first or second seeds come day two. If it were any other team than Fiji it may well be an unmanageable task.

Joie de vivre for Virimi

The whole world is absolutely salivating at seeing France’s Virimi Vakatawa back on the series, and rightly so, especially in Paris. Memories come flooding through from last year, seeing the flying Frenchman run a mock in most of the games he played in. The player is unique in many ways, but none more so than the fact he is a full-time French union rugby player, crossing both the 15s game and sevens for their national sides.

This is a masterstroke by the FFR as Vakatawa shows just why these sevens players are fantastic rugby players as a whole, not just in the the shorter form of the game. He did nothing on the international stage to shock any sevens viewer, as he has rarely graced a game without producing a moment of simply outrageous skill.

Other than securing Vakatawa, the host nation often frustrates many fans of sevens rugby as the nation’s natural flair, style and power should translate to a more impactful and consistent side, especially given their substantial backing – but one thing is for sure, they rise to a home crowd, so let us hope we see just what they are capable of.

DHL Impact Award insight

It is all heating up on the simmering annual award for performance across the series. Dan Norton was not as prominent as others in the recent rounds for his statistics, which Sam Cross well and truly capitalised on with a record-breaking individual score. The awards are set to take place on the eve of the London round, so seeing how the GB team-mates get on will be interesting viewing. Their differentiator throughout the series perfectly summarises the above theme – they are durable, resilient and ever-present for their teams, and that consistency is invaluable on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

Stream all the action live for the Paris Sevens on worldrugby.org, running May 13-14.