Aber 7s 2018: A Shrimpy Adventure

Aber 7s 2018: A Shrimpy Adventure

The 2018 Aberystwyth 7s tournament saw the return of the Pistol Shrimps for a 7th consecutive year. 11 lads in perfect shape (round is a shape) packed their bags and as the mist descended on Aber, the Shrimps came back.

Having formed the team in 2012, this was my 5th Aber 7s and I was looking forward to getting back with the Shrimps, having not seen any of them for 12 months. Some of the regulars weren’t able to make it this year due to other commitments (apparently we’re meant to be responsible adults now) but we still had 3 lads making their Shrimpy debuts this year.

Friday

Travelling from Gloucester to Aberystwyth by train is not a quick journey. I left Gloucester just before 11am knowing that I would be back in the bubble about half 3. Luckily after a quick stop at Birmingham New Street – including a frantic run around trying to figure out the new layout to get to my second train – I joined fellow Shrimp Limmer on the Birmingham – Aberystwyth stage of the journey. With 2 Shrimps now together it would be rude not to start drinking and luckily the ever-prepared Limmer had some lagers for us classy blokes to get through. We arrived in Aber to the flat we were renting to find that the Chairman of the Bridge himself, Mike Gledhill had already arrived and filled the treasure chest (fridge) with the nectar of the gods.IMG-20180504-WA0003

The next few hours were spent making a start on the collection of beers while more Shrimps arrived as the afternoon went on, and once the majority of the team were there we went to our sponsors Scholars for our annual pre-tournament dinner, wearing previous years kits and in the case of Meat Bag a banana outfit (for being the dope who almost turned up a week early). As a huge Star Wars fan, the decision to wear old kits out on May 4th (Star Wars Day) was great as it left me wearing my original kit with “Chewbacca” on the back! From Scholars, we could have gone for an early night to prepare for the next day… but instead decided to follow our Shrimpy instincts and began a long tour of half the pubs in town – and there’s a lot of pubs! As any night in Aberystwyth goes, we ended up dancing the night away in Yokos until it closed – not caring at all that we’re about double the age of the freshers – and making our eventual way back to the flat at 5:30am. Personal highlights of the night included a rousing rendition of YMCA in Downies and my helpful attempts at wingmanning for a fellow Shrimp (when it turns out that was the last thing he wanted/needed) and repeated hugs and cries of “Why are we both still out?!” every time I ran into one of the backs for our first opponents, Lingboks in the middle of Yokos.

Saturday

Whose stupid idea was it to stay out until half 5 when our first match was at 9:40am?! After a measly 2 and a half hours sleep I fell out of bed and made a beeline for the toilet to become the weekend’s first chunder bumder. Feeling very much worse for wear, we dragged ourselves down to Blaendolau playing fields for our opening match, which we lost 14-34 to Lingboks – who went on to top the group.

With the sun out in full force and my skin partial to burning under a full moon, the sun cream was out every 30 minutes and by our next match the team were feeling more alive, helped by the arrival of Seb who had missed the first match having got lost on the night out and slept in the back of his car! No luck catching them Swans then? faced a much-revived Pistol Shrimps and we ran out 17-29 victors in our second match, but we then lost our third match of the day 19-28 to Al-try-eda. To me this match was probably my biggest disappointment of the weekend as we should have had a penalty try on the stroke of halftime as their last man deliberately knocked on what would have been the killer pass to put our captain Ste over in the corner, only for a scrum to be awarded. The automatic 7 points, combined with the 2 minutes he would have spent in the sin bin would have been the turning point in this match.

IMG-20180506-WA0004With results being very up-and-down, we finished Day 1 on a high with a 52-0 win over A bit Pongy and a 14-22 victory against Budgie Smugglers to leave us 3-2 for the day. Our match with A bit Pongy will stick long in my memory as twice I was denied my first ever Shrimps try mere metres from the line.

Back to the flat and the old man in me wanted nothing more than to climb into bed and sleep for a year, but I dragged myself out with the team to watch the Haye v Bellew fight – which I surprised myself by calling a Bellew win. Once that was over, the old man in me won out and I went home to recover ahead of Sunday’s guaranteed 3 matches.

Sunday

As one of the few Shrimps to get an early night, I was certainly one of the fresher lads on Sunday morning. Luckily we had a slightly later start, but not by much, and after a delay getting through the gates we had about 15 minutes to get our boots on and warm up (if you can call 2 half-hearted stretches and a couple of passes of a ball a warm-up). We saw off Fish and a Rice Cake 29-12 and then completed our group with a 24-5 loss at the hands of Aukland BLBs to finish in 5th place on points difference.

We then had a couple of hours off before our Trophy quarter-final, so I took a chance to go watch a friend’s team Wolfpack Legends – who we have developed a relationship with due to both playing decent standards of rugby and coming back for the rugby (and the sesh) every year and having often played in the same league – win their next couple of matches.

Losing track of time, I almost missed our own match and after finally finding the pitch (as far away from our regular pitch as possible) I turned up for what proved to be our final match: a 0-5 loss to Triglycerides. To say this was not a classic 7s match is an understatement, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many scrums in a game before. Lack of sleep and proper stretching between matches took its toll on both teams and the handling ability of pretty much every player and Triglycerides finally got the only score of the game from first phase off a scrum (shock!) with the final play of the game.

From the field, we stopped at a pub on the way back to fill up with as much food as we can, and prepared for the big night out with some drinking games. I don’t know if it has a real name, but it was introduced to us by Andy the year before as the Stacky Cuppy Drinking Game… I now like to call it the Stacky Cuppy Fucky Timmy Uppy Drinking Game as a general lack of motor skills led to me getting absolutely ruined before the night out even began.

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Big thanks to Scholars for their hospitality yet again and also for the show of support behind the bar

When we left the flat, it was off to Harrys for a GAA – can’t have a trip to Aber without one of them! – before returning to Scholars for Kangaroo Court, led this year by The Right “Honourable” Judge Limmer. I wish I could tell you some fun stories from this and from the night after, but I’ll be honest I was such a state I don’t really remember anything and I’m not sure I even made it to 11pm before being back in the flat passed out in my bed.

Monday

The biggest benefit of being passed out so early on the Sunday night? No hangover on Monday! Though saying that I still had to be woke 30 minutes before our 10:30am checkout and still felt dead to the world.

After cleaning up the flat and checking out, it was off to Wetherspoons for the annual Monday debrief over a giant breakfast. As the next couple of hours went on, the group began to thin out as people began to leave to go home, and at half 12 I waved goodbye to Aber for another year and began my journey back to Gloucester, arriving back just after 6 and proudly showing off my numerous bruises on the way home.

Getting in, it was pretty much a case of going straight to bed and continuing my recovery, being very thankful that I had booked time off so I did not have to be back in work until Friday.

Same again next year chaps!

Caligo est descendens

In squilis venire

A Premier Mistake?

A few days ago I found myself thinking that we were surely due some news regarding this summer’s Premiership Rugby 7s Series. Perhaps Premiership Rugby have hired a psychic as when I looked on their website Tuesday evening, there was a story giving the dates and venue for this season’s tournament.

Unfortunately this news did not leave me as happy as I was hoping, and from reading the first paragraph, some of you may have already guessed why.

 

In previous years the competing teams – originally just the 12 teams in the upcoming Premiership year, but also the 4 Welsh Regions since 2014 – took part in pools of 4 teams, each pool being hosted by one of the teams in that pool. The final was then played at another venue, with the top 2 teams from each pool progressing to the final. This means that each of the previous tournaments have featured at least 4 host venues from around the UK. This time, however, Premiership Rugby have decided to change the style to what we saw during the Rio Olympics, with the 12 Premiership clubs competing over 2 days at Franklin’s Gardens.

While I think that it is a shame that the Welsh regions are no longer involved, I can understand the decision to copy the Rio format as this will make it easier for more casual fans to follow and understand. However, I feel that this is a mistake as we are now expecting everyone to make their way to Northampton for the tournament.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of the pool stages at Kingsholm and have noticed the increase in popularity over the years as more people get into 7s. However, this was often helped by the pools often containing local rivals, so travel was less of an issue. Now that fans are expected to travel to Northampton, I would be very surprised if the tournament gets the same level of attendance as in recent years. Putting the first day of the tournament on a Friday will not help either, as fans will have to contend with work commitments and rush hour making travel to the event even more difficult.

 

If Premiership Rugby do decide to keep this format, then I would like to see them make it into – as the name suggests – a series, much like a Premiership version of the World Rugby Sevens Series, with legs held at each of the Premiership clubs. This way, casual fans can choose to attend their local leg of the tournament, while more dedicated fans could choose to attend multiple legs. It would also be easy enough for clubs to add their home leg into their season ticket package in order to help encourage high attendances, as the cost for a ticket in the past has never been that high. Granted, we probably wouldn’t be able to hold the entire series in the preseason, but we could have weekly legs in the preseason and perhaps even the opening weeks of the Premiership season, then complete the tournament towards the end of the season as the weather begins to improve again.

Playing legs during the season would also encourage teams to use players from their academy or ‘A’ teams as their stars will be otherwise engaged, which gives younger players more chance to gain experience in front of a big crowd. This would also surely be a good way for national team coaches like Simon Amor to identify future players for the World Series and other international tournaments.

 

Whatever happens, I will be interested to see how successful the new format of the tournament is and also to see what the next step is moving forward.

 

What are your thoughts on the new format? Is there anything you want to change about the Series? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Change Coming in the World Series?

Over the last couple of days I have been hearing rumours that England, Wales and Scotland are set to merge into a Team GB for the World Series as well as the Olympics. According to the reports, the team would then split into its individual countries for the World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Part of this has been driven by other nations not liking the way that Team GB have 3 chances of qualifying for the Olympics via the World Series under the current setup, whereas playing as Team GB would give them the same chance as any other nation. If this merger were to happen, it would be a big change to the Rugby 7s landscape, so I felt that the impact of this was worth having a look into.

Back in August, Team GB managed to completely prove my prediction that they would struggle at the Rio Olympics completely wrong by winning the silver medal as runners-up to Fiji. If the players were able to do that after only a couple of weeks together – compared to the other nations who had spent the best part of a year preparing for the tournament – then it is possible spending regular time together could give them an even better chance of victory in subsequent Olympic events. It could also lead to increased success in the World Series. England’s 2nd place in the overall standings of this season was the first time one of the Home Nations had finished in the top 3 since the 2011/12 season where England finished 3rd. By bringing in the top 7s players from Scotland and Wales, this will allow Team GB to be even more competitive in the World Series as they would have more top 7s players to pick from and they would also have a better chemistry than at Rio due to an increased time training together. It would also reduce much of the financial burden on the individual unions if they can all join together to fund one team. As has been noted by the media, it is not that long since the SRU considered cutting their 7s programme due to a lack of funds, but now they have won the London 7s 2 years running and are clearly a team on the up! World Rugby’s “School of Sevens” series of videos on YouTube also recently included a bit about the tactical use of different languages being used in 7s. In it, a number of English players mentioned how they were at a disadvantage as opponents could often understand them when they were speaking English, but they could not understand their opponent’s native tongue. It was also mentioned how Team GB used Welsh for the line out calls during the Olympics in order to stop other teams understanding them. Having a regular Great Britain team would allow them to start utilising the Welsh language and possibly also Gaelic to communicate on the field and have success against other nations.

While there are clearly a number of positives to merging the nations, in my mind there are also a couple of negatives that need consideration. Being able to pick a team from all 3 nations means that there are fewer places available for players, so we will probably see a potential development pathway – think New Zealand under Sir Gordon Tietjens – disappear as there will only be space for the sevens specialists. Perhaps even worse is the possible hindrance this merger could have on the individual nations’ chances in the Commonwealth Games and in the World Cups. If we look back to the 12-man Team GB squad that went to Rio, the squad consisted of 8 Englishmen, 2 Welsh and 2 Scots. Of those 4 players, only one will be expected to play in next year’s World Series due to 2 of them (James Davies and Mark Bennett) focusing on 15s and Mark Robertson retiring. I would expect a bit more balance in a Great Britain wider squad, but would still expect there to be an uneven balance between the 3 nations. While this may not necessarily cause problems when playing as Great Britain, it could put nations with fewer players involved at a disadvantage when they then split for the other tournaments as they would have less international experience than most other teams involved.

My personal opinion is that it would be good to see the nations merge for the World Series. However I think that it would benefit the nations to find a way to also keep their own individual national teams playing in some other tournaments outside the World Series so that there is still a decent degree of chemistry and experience for each individual national team.

 

As well as the prospective changes to the way these nations run their 7s programme, there is also talk that the World Series will be reduced from 16 teams to 12. I am not personally a fan of this. I know some people are worried that the quality of rugby would decrease if 2 spaces are freed up in a 16-team tournament by the Great Britain merger, but I feel that this could actually help the Series as a whole due to there being less chance of the promoted team being immediately relegated, which would allow emerging nations like Germany to improve by playing against the best teams in the world on a regular basis, but also being able to regularly compete with teams around their level so that they can still be competitive in matches.

 

What are your thoughts on the possible changes? Would you like to see either of these plans come to fruition, or do you have a better suggestion? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Rugby 7s: Rio’s Golden Sport

Rio 2016 marked the first time rugby union had featured at a Summer Olympic Games since the USA won gold in 1924. At that time, there were only 3 male teams featured and the rugby played was on the 15-man variety. Here in Rio, rugby’s return has been in the shorter form of Rugby 7s, with both a men’s and a women’s competition, each featuring 12 countries playing over 3 days.

Australia won gold in the women’s tournament with victory over New Zealand, while Canada beat Great Britain to the bronze. In the men’s competition, Ben Ryan’s Fiji made history by winning their country’s first ever Olympic medal with an emphatic win against Great Britain in the final, whilst South Africa won bronze ahead of surprise semi-finalists Japan.

Though the stadium rarely seemed to fill up as much as expected, from everything I have seen on social media it would appear that both tournaments were well received and it certainly feels like both rugby 7s and also women’s rugby as a whole gained some new fans over the 6 days of competition. When officials begin planning for future Olympic Games, I am sure there will be plenty of support to keep the sport in the Games beyond 2020.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see as much of the rugby as I wanted, but from what I did manage to see and from what I have read online, here are my thoughts on the competition, focusing mainly on the men’s tournament as this is what I was able to watch more of.

Scheduling: I liked the decision of the tournament organisers to hold the women’s tournament ahead of the men’s tournament. Rugby is unfortunately a sport that many people would say women can’t play well as they are unable to cope with the physicality of the sport. It was clear watching the tournaments that the women play a very different style of 7s to the men, with a non-stop high tempo attack compared to the very stop-start, varied intensity of the men’s tournament. By putting the women’s tournament ahead of the men’s, it meant that the women were being judged in their own right rather than being constantly compared to the men. As a result, I saw a lot of positive opinions on social media on the way that women’s rugby was being played and also on the ladies’ credentials as athletes. While I think the whole 6 days was a great advert for Rugby 7s, I think the first 3 days were a fantastic advert for women’s rugby and will have hopefully significantly increased its fan base.

Kicking: When I first started playing a bit of 7s at uni with a group of mates, we always used to start our training with a fair amount of kicking the ball around and testing each other under the high ball while the stragglers were getting ready. This used to frustrate one of our lads (the only one with any previous 7s experience) as he always argued that the only times the ball should ever be kicked in 7s were restarts and conversions. Having watched a lot of 7s myself since then, I would argue that kicking in open play does have its place, but that it’s something that should be done sparingly and that the main focus of attacking in 7s should be to keep possession and manipulate the space to work your way downfield. I was therefore surprised by how much players appeared to be kicking the ball during the Olympics compared to in the World Series. Teams often preferred kicking a penalty to touch over taking a quick tap, and also seemed more than happy to boot the ball downfield for the speedsters to chase after. This led to a number of poor kicks going out of play, gifting the opposition a line-out in great field position.

I would be interested to know the reasoning behind this different mentality. The only reason I could imagine would be that they saw kicking the ball downfield as being a lower-risk option to playing out from their own 22. While a full season competition like the World Series would minimise the effect of 1 poor result, in a one-off tournament like the Olympic Games, one handling error in the 22 could be the difference between the gold or an early exit.

Curse of the commentator: Maybe the reason that everyone was kicking away the ball is that they were listening to the BBC commentary and doing as they suggested. Sir Clive Woodward is undoubtedly very knowledgeable when it comes to rugby, but he is not the person that I would pick as co-commentator for a 7s event. His knowledge of 7s tactics and the players on show seemed very limited and every other comment during the men’s games seemed to be a suggestion that the team with the ball should kick it away or an explanation of how the strength of the forwards was the reason that a team was winning. From what I read he was also struggling to do much better in the women’s tournament, with a lot of people complaining at his frequent description of the players as ‘girls’ and his confusion as to who was playing (regardless of whether you like the name Team GB or not, it certainly wasn’t England on show). For a sport as exciting as 7s, Woodward is also not the most exciting of commentators by any means. Surely the BBC would have done better asking Jonathan Davies to partner Eddie Butler or, even better, a player who has recent experience of rugby 7s, perhaps someone who had recently retired or a current player unable to train due to an ongoing injury. Or maybe I’m just too used to hearing Sean Maloney’s commentary during the World Series.

Give the ref a yellowI’m not picking out any particular referee here, but it seemed that the quality of officiating during the tournament was poor. The number of penalties given for offences at the breakdown was substantial, yet I cannot remember a single player receiving a yellow card for such an offence, meaning that players were happy to continue slowing the ball illegally as they knew they could get away with it. Conversely, any tackle that was even close to being high – except for one by an Argentinian on Dan Norton in the quarter-final – seemed to result in a player spending 2 minutes on the naughty seat. Many of these penalised high tackles seemed questionable too, most notably one given against Kenya when they were ahead against New Zealand. As Scott Curry dived for the corner, he was tackled around the chest and shoulder area by Collins Injera, knocking on in the process. However Injera was given a yellow for the high tackle and a penalty try was given as well. While in my opinion the tackle was perfectly legal anyway, I feel that the penalty try was more than sufficient punishment and that the yellow all but killed off Kenya’s chances in the match. I understand that officials are asked to clamp down on certain offences, but the general performance of the officials on show did not seem of the same quality we see throughout the season on the World Series.

On a more positive note, I was happy to see South African Rasta Rasivhenge picked to referee the men’s gold medal match. He has impressed me for a number of seasons on the World Series and did a good job in the final. He recently refereed his first Test match in the 15-man code at the start of July, and I am sure we will be hearing much more about him as time goes on.

Everyone loves a good story: As well as being a great tournament with a high level of rugby on show, there were some fantastic storylines in the men’s tournament:

  • When former England 7s coach Ben Ryan was signed on as the new coach of the Fijian 7s team in 2013, he spent the early months working without pay due the national union’s financial issues. The team had not won the World Series since the 2005/06 season and were not up to the standard that he wanted. The Fijians have always had a natural flair and Ryan harnessed that with improved fitness and organisation to create a style of rugby that was effective yet still beautiful. They have now won the World Series in the last 2 years and followed it up with the gold medal in Rio. This looks to be a team of grounded individuals who are playing a game that they love and taking great pride in representing their nation. I can’t imagine that there are many people who begrudge Fiji the gold, they well and truly deserved it!
  • Before the tournament started, I suggested that Great Britain would be lucky to make it to the semi-finals of the men’s competition, due to their lack of experience playing together (having only come together in May) and the poor results of the representative nations in the World Series. I have never been more happy to be proved wrong! It may not have been an easy road for Simon Amor’s side, with a number of close victories – Kenya were the only team they ran away against – and even needing extra time to beat Argentina in the quarter-finals after a thrilling math ended 0-0. My fingernails certianly didn’t appreciate how close the matches against Argentina and South Africa were! Though they were comprehensively outplayed in the final by Fiji, they can be extremely proud of what they have done, and I’m sure many would admit that winning silver would have been nothing more than a dream as they arrived in Rio. I really enjoyed the joining of England, Scotland and Wales and think it would be fantastic if Team GB can play 7s on a more regular basis moving forward.
  • Japan shocked the world in 2015 when they beat South Africa in their opening match of the Rugby World Cup. The 7s team pulled off arguably as big a shock in their opener in Rio, beating one of the pre-tournament favourites, New Zealand, 12-14. After narrowly losing to Great Britain in their 2nd game, a win over Kenya saw them qualify second in their group. They beat France in the quarter-finals but a semi-final against Fiji was a step too far and they eventually finished the tournament 4th after losing to the Blitzbokke in the bronze medal match. The Japanese we not even a core team in the most recent season of the World Series, but having earned promotion for next season, it will be interesting and exciting to see how they perform over a whole season. With the 2019 Rugby World Cup being held in Japan, the more success the national rugby teams can have, the more the country will take to the sport.
  • My pre-tournament prediction for the silver medal, New Zealand had a shocker in Rio. Losing 2 players to injury in their loss to Japan was the worst way to start the tournament, and it took until the final day for them to fully recover, eventually finishing 5th overall, having qualified as one of the 2 best runners-up but losing to Fiji in the quarter-finals. To lose players of the quality of Sonny Bill Williams and Joe Webber so early in the tournament will severely harm the chances of any team, but Gordan Tietjen’s side looked a shadow of the team regular followers of 7s know they can be, with the creative Gillies Kaka used in a limited fashion. The All Blacks 7s players and staff will be disappointed with the result here and I’m sure they will do everything they can to win the upcoming World Series and will also target victory in the 2018 World Cup Sevens.
  • As I looked at the lineups for Great Britain’s semi-final against South Africa, my thoughts were not on the 7 names starting for the Blitzbokke, but on one who was missing from the squad, Seabelo Senatla. The top scorer in the 2015/16 World Series was forced out of the tournament through injury and replaced by Worcester scrum-half Francois Hougaard. Due to a (ridiculous) rule, Senatla was not considered eligible for a medal as he had not been included in the match day squad for the semi-final or bronze medal match, despite having played in all of South Africa’s pool matches. Injury replacement Hougaard chose to give his medal to Senatla, thereby going without one himself. While this rule clearly needs looking at ahead of 2020, this selfless act from Hougaard deserves all the admiration he is getting and much more. Hopefully someone is currently in the process of organising an additional medal for the team so that both players can get the medal they earned.

“I gave Sea my medal before I left as I believe he deserves it more. The medal is really special to me but he deserves it” – Hougaard’s tweet confirming that he had given away his medal

 

These are of course the ramblings of someone who only got to see about a dozen matches over the entire 6 days, so I would love to hear your views on the tournament. Do you feel that there’s something I missed? I would love to hear your views on the tournament, both what you feel went well and also what you feel could have been better. And of course the big question after such a big development in a sport: where do things go from here?

Road to Rio – Chasing the Olympic Dream

First of all, congratulations to Ben Ryan and the Fiji Rugby 7s team who last weekend completed the defence of their World Series crown. With the Series over for another year, thoughts now move to Brazil, where rugby will be making its long-awaited return to the Olympic Games.

Rugby was last played at the Olympics in 1924, when the USA won Gold in the 15-man code ahead of France and Romania, the only other nations to compete. This will be the début of Rugby 7s at the Olympics, with 12 teams competing over 2 days. As hosts, Brazil qualified automatically. So far they have been joined by Fiji, Great Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, USA, France, Japan, Australia and Kenya. The final qualifier will be decided at a 16-team competition in Monaco in mid-June. Anything can happen in a tournament, but it is likely that Samoa or Canada will be the victor and take the final Olympic spot.

Since the Olympic return was announced, a number of unions have pushed funds towards the 7-man code in order to give their nation the best chance of Olympic glory. A number of nations have also opened their door to 15s players who they hope could help them get a place on the podium. But which teams have the best chance of getting a medal?

Fiji

Having won the World Series the last 2 years, Fiji have to be the favourites to win Gold. Always a fan favourite, the Fijians may not be the best defensively, but their natural skill and attacking ability allows them to often outscore the opposition. You have to go back to the 2010/11 season to find the last time that Fiji finished outside the top 3 in the World Series. Of course, the Olympics is a single tournament, so a weak defence could prove costly, but with experienced sevens stars such as Jasa Veremalua, Osea Kolinisau (both in this season’s Dream Team), Samisoni Viriviri and Semi Kunatani, you can guarantee there won’t be a boring moment when Fiji are on the pitch.

Glasgow lock and offload king Leone Nakarawa has also spent some time back with the 7s team. The ability to offload out of a tackle, thereby taking the tackler and maybe even extra defenders out of the game, always comes in handy in rugby, but probably even more so in 7s, where there are only 7 men to cover the whole pitch. There may also be a spot in the Olympic squad for cross-code star Jarryd Hayne, who made his Fiji 7s début at Twickenham last weekend. His performances in the NRL and NFL suggest that if he can quickly get up to speed with the style of play, he could be one of the breakout stars in Rio.

Bringing in new players so close to the tournament, especially those with limited experience of the game, will always be risky, but Fiji have the right man at the helm to give them the best possible chance. Former England 7s Head Coach Ben Ryan has done a great job installing more order to the Fijian play whilst keeping the natural flair that everyone knows and loves.

Likely to have the support of neutral fans due to their style of play, I fully expect to see Fiji on the podium and would not be surprised to see them win gold.

New Zealand

Like Fiji, New Zealand will always be pushing for the latter stages at individual tournaments, and will always be towards the top in the end-of-season standings. With the experience of IRB Hall of Fame member Gordon Tietjens guiding them, you can guarantee that the All Blacks Sevens team will be doing everything they can to win gold at Rio. 44 players have moved on from Titch’s squads to be capped by the All Blacks in the 15-man code.

A number of 15s players have spent some or all of the season with the 7s squad in the hopes of making the Olympics team. Most notably are World Cup winners Liam Messam (one of those to graduate from international 7s to 15s) and Sonny Bill Williams. I mentioned earlier the benefit of having a player who can frequently offload out the tackle and Williams showed that perfectly against South Africa in the pool stages of the Wellington 7s, where was tackled by 3 players but till managed to get the offload to allow Joe Webber to run in untouched. Titch also has a number of 7s regulars to pick from as well, including Gillies Kaka, Tim Mikkelson and DJ Forbes.

New Zealand may have only finished 3rd in the World Series this season, but given the amount of squad rotation due to injuries and experimentation, that is still a good result. They were also able to win 3 tournaments this season, the only team other than Fiji (also 3) to win multiple tournaments.

As a team they also have great experience of winning the big tournaments, having won 2 Rugby World Cup Sevens events (2001 & 2013) and 4 Commonwealth Games gold medals (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010) under Tietjens. This gives me confidence that New Zealand can grab a medal, and they are probably the team with the best chance of beating the Fijians to gold.

South Africa

Though they only won a single tournament, the Blitzbokke’s consistency saw them beat New Zealand to 2nd place in the overall standings in the World Series. Along with Fiji, they were the only team to field 2 players in this season’s Dream Team: Kwagga Smith and Seabelo Senatla. We’ve known for a couple of season that Senatla was a real talent, but he made it perfectly clear this year, scoring a whopping 66 tries in the World Series. By comparison, the next highest amount of tries was 45 from Perry Baker. Senatla also narrowly missed out to Madison Hughes as the top points scorer in the series, scoring 330 points to Hughes’ 331. There is no substitute for pace in 7s and Senatla has plenty of that.

Bryan Habana is another high profile name looking to make his national team for the Olympics, as is Worcester scrum half Francois Hougaard, but with the quality of players available for South Africa – including Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Roscko Speckman and captain Kyle Brown – there is no guarantee either of them will actually make it to Rio as anything more than a spectator.

South Africa also come into this as current Commonwealth Games Champions, experience that could prove vital in their quest for gold. I think if the draw goes in their favour the Blizbokke could get gold, but find it much more likely they will be fighting for the bronze.

Australia

The Aussies are a difficult teams to judge. Runners up this season in the USA and also their home event, they struggled to consistently come away from events with a decent points haul, but were still able to make it to 4th in the overall standings. They may not have the as many ‘superstar’ players as some of the teams mentioned here, but their ability to play well as a team means they could very easily cause an upset against the more favoured teams. I can see them making the semis but, barring a favourable draw, expect them to just miss out on the podium.

USA

USA Rugby have put a big focus on 7s to help the development of rugby in the USA. The 7s team is not used to develop players from the national 15-a-side team, but has also been pushing to maximise their chances of Olympic glory, having offered their players professional contracts since 2012.

As discussed in a previous post a number of athletes have crossed over from other sports in order to try and win a medal. The most notable name in recent months has been Super Bowl Champion Nate Ebner, who was given leave by the New England Patriots to try out for the Olympic inclusion, having previously played for the national 7s team as a teenager. Former Philadelphia Eagle Perry Baker has had a great season, second only to Senatla in the try scoring charts and 5th overall on points scored, also making the season’s Dream Team.

This season’s top points scorer Madison Hughes is likely to be leading the team in Rio, and will possibly be joined by Zack Test, Danny Barrett and Thretton Palamo – all of whom featured for the USA during the 2015 Rugby World Cup – and the fastest man in world rugby Carlin Isles.

The USA team has come on leaps and bounds since Mike Friday took over. Before the 2014/15 season, their best finish in the World Series had been 10th, but they have now finished 6th 2 years running and also won their first ever tournament last year at Twickenham.

The USA maybe don’t have the strength in depth that some of the other sides do, but on their day and with a favourable draw, the USA could be dark horses to finish on the podium.

Great Britain

Great Britain are probably the hardest team to judge at this moment. They have not yet had any serious time together as a team, which puts them at a disadvantage, but hey have also been able to have a larger number of players taking part in the World Series each week thanks to them competing as 3 separate countries.

As individual countries, their results don’t make the best of reading for Team GB fans: England finishing 8th overall, Scotland 10th and Wales 12th. They managed one tournament victory between them, Scotland’s win last weekend. However what must be taken into account here is that England’s squad, much like the All Blacks, has been frequently changed this year to try and help keep players like Tom Mitchell and Dan Norton at peak fitness for the Olympics, whilst also to try and deal with injuries to regulars like Dan Bibby.

Head coach Simon Amor’s Olympic plans will ave also been hindered by the lack of help from the national unions or the clubs. Joe Simpson and Mark Bennett are probably the most notable names from 15s to be picked for the training squad, however unlike Williams and Habana, they have not been released by their clubs to spend any time on the World Series this season, giving them a limited time to transition to the shorter form of the game. Marcus Watson was also not released by Newcastle until their season was over. Having more experience of 7s, he may be able to get back up to speed quicker but there is no guarantee of that.

This lack of time on the sevens circuit means that they will have a limited time to gel together, harming their chances, but it does also mean that the opposition will have less of an idea what to expect, which could help balance the field slightly.

Simon Amor will look to get the best out of the players he selects, but at this moment I think a semi final spot would be a fantastic result but would probably require a very favourable draw. At this moment the best chance of a medal for Team GB Rugby would appear to be in the women’s game…

My expected Top 4

  1. Fiji
  2. New Zealand
  3. South Africa
  4. USA

An American Revolution

History was made at the weekend with the opening round of the USA’s first ever professional rugby union league. PRO Rugby began with an 16-13 overtime win for Denver against Ohio, while Sacramento beat San Francisco 37-25 to be the first team to top the table. The final team in the tournament, San Diego will kick off their season at home to Sacramento on Saturday.

PRO Rugby has been realistic in its expectations for this season, hoping for average attendances of 3,000-4,000 with the largest stadium being Sacramento’s Bonney Field, which has a capacity of 11,442. They have also not gone the way of most American sports competitions, having all clubs owned by the league as opposed to being individually owned franchises. The schedule also sees most matches being played on a Sunday to avoid disruption for amateur grass-roots clubs. It would seem that the league is attempting to create a community, much like you find in British leagues, rather than trying to spread themselves too far. There are however already plans in place for the competition to expand next year to include Canadian teams.

The USA and Canadian national teams had relatively disappointing results at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but the creation of this competition could be one of the big factors in the improvement of these countries going forward. The majority of the players in the PRO Rugby squads are current or prospective internationals for these two nations, but there are also some notable foreign nationals who have made the move to the US. RWC2011 winner Mils Muliaina has taken his experience to San Francisco, whilst Sacramento can look to former Italian international Mirco Bergamasco and Denver will be captained by 20-cap Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg. San Diego are also packed with top-level experience in the form of Tongan fly half Kurt Morath and former Biarritz back Jean-Baptiste Gobelet, as well as one of the more famous USA internationals of recent years Takudzwa Ngwenya.

The inclusion of well-known names like these can only help to attract fans to watch the games, in doing so increasing the number of rugby fans in the USA. PRO Rugby have also looked to Americanise the competition by adding overtime to try to limit the number of drawn games. They have also limited the number of scrum resets in order to appeal to new fans. Spectacles like March’s Premiership Rugby match between London Irish and Saracens in New Jersey will also only help to bring new fans to the sport, as they get to see top-level rugby from squads brimming with international talent. For a country with a population as big as the USA, a large fan base will only increase the number of people playing, which can only help a nation’s chances of improving long-term.

The good news is that USA Rugby look to have the right people in the right places at the moment. Gloucester fans will recognise the name at the helm of the organisation: former coach Nigel Melville has been CEO and President of Operations since October 2006. Having coached Gloucester for a number of years in the Premiership, he is aware of what it takes to be competitive at the top of the game. The head coaches of the senior men’s teams are also very experienced. Since January, the 15-a-side team have been coached by John Mitchell, a former forwards coach with both England and Ireland, who has also had a number of head coach jobs at Super Rugby clubs and also the New Zealand national side from 2001-2003. The 7s team has spent the last 2 seasons under the control of Mike Friday, whose record as a coach in the World Series speaks volumes: in the 2 seasons that he coached England from 2004-2006, they finished 3rd and 2nd; Kenya had one of their best seasons in 2012/13 , reaching 5th place in the standings whilst also winning the Wellington Sevens. Last season, Friday led the Eagles to their first ever tournament victory in the London Sevens, to finish 6th in the end of season standings, the first time they had finished in the top 10 since the 2009/10 season. This season, with 2 rounds left, the Eagles are yet to win a tournament, but are in a good position to beat last year’s record points total, and are currently sitting 5th in the table.

The success of the 7s team, especially with the sports inclusion in this year’s Rio Olympics, will again help to increase the number of fans, but is also allowing the players to compete more regularly against top quality players in the latter stages of big tournaments. As a result, a number of players use the 7s squad as a way to develop themselves further, with a number of the RWC2015 squad having featured in the 7s squad during their careers (such as Thretton Palamo, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles) or being regulars in the current squads, such as current stars Danny Baker and Zack Test. Former USA 15s captain Todd Clever, who was dropped in the last months of the Mike Tolkin regime but has come back into the squad this season, also spent a number of years playing in the World Series before a move to the Japanese Top League. This is a great source of experience for players looking to break into the national 15s squad, especially for a country who will get a limited number of games against Tier 1 opposition.

A number of USA internationals have chosen to go abroad in search of top-level competition, so far with varying degrees of success. Thretton Palamo made a handful of appearances in the Premiership for Saracens before agreeing a loan move to London Welsh in the Championship this season, however he agreed a release from this contract in December to allow him to go back to the USA 7s squad. Danny Barrett and RWC2015 squadmate Seamus Kelly both had one month trials at Gloucester back in 2014, but neither managed to gain a full-time contract. Having only discovered this reading up for this post, and having been impressed by Kelly in the World Cup and Barrett in the 7s, I am shocked and gutted by this! Blaine Scully is currently playing in the Pro12 for Cardiff Blues after a couple of seasons with Leicester. RWC2015 captain Chris Wyles is a regular for Saracens, who also have lock Hayden Smith on their books. Flanker and 7s player Andrew Durutalo has also recently left the USA 7s team to join the Sunwolves, Japan’s new Super Rugby side. After an impressive World Cup, fly half AJ MacGinty was signed by Connacht for this season, and will next year be replacing Danny Cipriani in the 10 shirt for Sale. Though he may now be playing in PRO Rugby, Takudzwa Ngwenya was a regular for Biarritz, making over two hundred appearances and regularly coming towards the top of the European competition try scoring lists.

Rugby is frequently compared to American football. I’m not usually a fan of this comparison, but I will agree that it is possible for some players to have a physique and skill set that can allow success in both sports. In an earlier post, I wrote about Jarryd Hayne’s attempt to cross codes from rugby league to the NFL, but this is certainly not a one-way street. The sheer size of an American football roster means that many college players will not make the cut in the NFL, so some will look to a career change. The USA 7s squad has a number of sporting converts, many of whom are proving to be very successful in the World Series. Zack Test was a wide receiver when he was at college in Oregon, he is now the USA’s top try scorer in the World Series. Speedster Perry Baker was actually signed by the Philadelphia Eagles NFL team, but saw that career ruined by a knee injury. After 2 seasons in the Arena Football League, he took up rugby full-time and has become a regular in the 7s squad. Carlin Isles, widely regarded as the fastest man in rugby was an American football player at college and also a sprinter. His personal best over 100m was 10.24 seconds in 2012 and his opponents in the World Series would probably agree that he’s not much slower with a ball in hand. Possibly the most notable case of code switching in the USA 7s team is Nate Ebner. Ebner was the youngest player to make the USA 7s team and also featured in the USA U19 and U20 teams before deciding to play American football in his latter years at Ohio State. This led to him getting drafted by the New England Patriots in the 2012 NFL Draft, with whom he won the Super Bowl in 2015. Last month it was announced that the Patriots have granted Ebner a leave of absence in order to play for the USA 7s team again, with a view to making the squad for the Rio Olympics. He recently featured in the Singapore leg of the tour, where he scored two tries against Portugal. If these code-hoppers continue to have success in rugby, more players may be tempted to move to this emerging sport.

While the emergence of more international quality players and a professional league can only help the national team to improve, in order for them to reach their full potential, they need to playing top teams on a regular basis. The USA competed against Canada, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Japan in the Pacific Nations Cup between 2013 and 2015. Though they may no longer be involved in this competition, they now compete in the Americas Rugby Championship against Canada, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and Argentina XV (the Argentine equivalent of England Saxons). While this is great for the development of rugby in the Americas as a whole, I don’t believe that this will allow the USA national team to reach their full potential. Luckily they do appear to be getting more regular fixtures against top teams, having hosted the All Blacks in November 2014 and Australia in the build-up to the World Cup, and with a fixture planned for November against the Maori All Blacks. If they continue to play a couple of top teams per year, possibly also regular fixtures against teams like the Saxons, Maori All Blacks and Barbarians, then I feel it is just a matter of time before we see the USA rising up the world rankings.

This is a great time for fans of USA rugby, with the 15s team moving forward under a new coach and the 7s side being a dark horse for Olympic Gold, things are looking good for the national team. Success will lead to more coverage and popularity, and the emergence of PRO Rugby will be able to take advantage of this and help the development of possible future internationals. The 2019 World Cup in Japan may be a step too soon for them to challenge at the top, but will be a great chance for them to show how far they have come in a couple of years. But by 2023, we may have a new superpower in world rugby.

As a rugby fan, the thought of the USA reaching their full potential just fills me with excitement, and I can’t wait to see what happens moving forwards.