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WHAT CHANCE DOUBLE GOLD?

11 July 2022
rugby sevens commonwealth games day 11
New Zealand would love to see this sight again on July 31 (UK time).

New Zealand’s sevens teams have a near-perfect record at the Commonwealth Games but the supremacy of the Black Ferns and All Blacks Sevens will come under serious threat in Birmingham. Admittedly, women’s sevens were only introduced in the last edition of the Games on the Gold Coast in 2018, so while their history is a little more limited it’s fair say that in the pantheon of epic matches the gold medal game four years ago was one of the greats.

It was the catalyst for the Black Ferns’ extraordinary run that would roll on to the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco just a few months later and eventually to the Tokyo Olympics triumph. The challenge ahead is a juicy one. A unique coaching swap has paid dividends across the board for the Australian Sevens programme. With Tim Walsh back in charge of the women’s side and a new band of very talented young players combining with some of their tried and true performers like Charlotte Caslick, Sharni Williams and Demi Hayes, Australia’s women have regained the form that made them such a dominant force a few years ago.

‘Some of the big name (Black Ferns Sevens) players thrived in returning to the World Series.’

Australia romped to the 2022 World Series title, although it comes with the caveat that the Black Ferns Sevens were sitting at home for the bulk of the season. Their game, however, has shifted markedly since their Tokyo disaster and they have firepower across the park, including notable young stars Maddison Levi and Faith Nathan.

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While extolling the virtues of the new and improved Aussies, the way the Black Ferns so quickly hit their stride upon returning to the World Series will have put all the other teams on notice – New Zealand hadn’t missed a beat while they were away. They should have won the title in Langford and they know it, and despite being hit by major Covid-19 disruption they found a way to the trophy in Toulouse… it must have smarted to see Australia scoop the pool at the end of season awards later that day.

The workload ahead is big for these players; the Sevens World Cup follows a month after the Comm Games, while some players still have aspirations of turning out at the home 15s Rugby World Cup in early October. Recent big game experience for some of the younger players like Jazmin Hotham, Risi Pouri-Lane and Alena Saili will be invaluable as New Zealand once again navigates its way through tournaments where every other team is gunning for them.

Some of the big name players thrived in returning to the World Series; Michaela Blyde looks like she’s ready to elevate her game to another level, and Niall Williams, whose career was almost over a year ago, added starch to the line-up in Toulouse. The big game pedigree makes the Black Ferns Sevens marginal favourites over Australia but there is a big wildcard in the pack: Fiji.

new zealand v australia: women's trans tasman sevens
Niall Williams has returned to add starch to the Black Ferns Sevens.

No team will want to be on Fiji’s side of the draw. Fit, fast and disciplined, while Fijiana haven’t quite kicked on from their Tokyo form in terms of winning a title they’re now a team that can consistently compete with New Zealand and Australia. Once they learn how to and experience the thrill of closing out big games, Fiji will only grow in confidence.

Elsewhere, perennial contenders Canada are in a major rebuilding phase after a host of retirements and a series of off-field problems while England is going through another unsettled period as the RFU puts its resources into the 15s game. With just eight teams competing, the tournament is short and sharp for the women – top two in each group go straight through to the semis, meaning there is little margin for error.

Over on the men’s side, a couple of really good teams will miss out on the medals. New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, Australia and Samoa are all realistic contenders to win gold, and while picking a favourite is a difficult proposition, it’s always hard to go past Fiji in a major event.

However, the Commonwealth Games is the one tournament where the Fijians have failed to shine. Fiji didn’t compete in 2010 and 2014 owing to suspension due to the country’s military coup, and it remains the only major trophy missing from its glittering record. South Africa goes into the tournament after major speed wobbles on the World Series, where they’re clinging on to top spot with one tournament to play. Right behind the Blitz Boks is Australia, now coached by former women’s head John Manenti.

Its rise has been remarkable this season and the talent spotting of Manenti, Walsh and their support staff exceptional. With only limited contracts to offer, they’ve plucked players from club and academy programmes and moulded a team under outstanding skipper Nick Malouf that is a match for anyone. The extra time win over New Zealand to take out the London Sevens final was just reward for its consistency and puts it amongst the favourites in Birmingham.

Samoa, too, has been a revelation since returning to the series post-Covid at the mid-season Singapore tournament. With a team largely based out of Samoa rather than New Zealand, and under the guidance of the legendary Muliagatele Brian Lima, the Samoans have regularly threatened without having a series medal to show for it. Their depth has been tested by injury at times and ill-discipline has been costly. Just where the All Blacks Sevens sit in the mix of the contenders is hard to gauge.

It’s been a real mixed bag for Clark Laidlaw’s team in playing four events since returning to the series in Singapore where it lost the final to Fiji. Since then, it suffered a quarter-final loss in Vancouver, its worst ever result of ninth in Toulouse and an extra-time final loss in London, with all the while battling significant injuries and absences.

Curry was in the form of his career prior to his move and will quickly need to find his feet back in the sevens game.

They will be without playmaker Andrew Knewstubb, who is out for the season with a knee injury, but will have everyone else available including Scott Curry, who has returned from a stint in Japan. Curry was in the form of his career prior to his move and will quickly need to find his feet back in the sevens game, but his availability for both the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens in September is a huge boost.

rugby olympics: day 5
Scott Curry was missed by the All Blacks Sevens, but he must swiftly regain his groove.

Among the mixed results have been some real finds in the likes of Leroy Carter, Kitiona Vai, Moses Leo (before injury slowed his progress), Caleb Tangitau and Brady Rush. Because of the shutdown and New Zealand’s delayed return, those players perhaps had their development delayed a little and have had to learn on the fly. Injuries meant they’ve all been thrown in the deep end at once and, by and large, have come up swimming, but it takes a long time to truly understand how to perform consistently in the international sevens arena.

With a group of veteran players at one end and the rookies at the other, expectation now goes on the middle tier of players like Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, Tone Ng Shiu and Akuila Rokolisoa, to carry much of the responsibility for how the team progresses over the next few seasons. No team has a better record than New Zealand’s men at the Commonwealth Games, with five gold medals and one silver. Birmingham would be just the place to show the All Blacks Sevens remain a force to be reckoned with.

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