Competitive, compelling and apparently credit crunch-proof, the 10th anniversary season of the IRB Sevens World Series could scarcely have got off to a better start over the past month, and neither could South Africa.
The IRB reports that two sell-out crowds watched on as, after a year of almost total dominance, New Zealand were for once forced to play second fiddle to Paul Treu’s fine South African team that plundered gold at both Dubai and George.
A new stadium, a new record attendance and some fantastic rugby combined to make the Emirates Airline Dubai Sevens one of the most memorable tournaments in recent times, before the spectacular Outeniqua mountain range once again provided a fitting back-drop for more jaw-dropping drama in George for the Emirates-sponsored South Africa event.
In starting so well Treu’s young side has won twice in the same World Series for the first time, including a first cherished success at home after 10 years of trying.
They lead the World Series standings with a maximum 40 points from eight-times champions New Zealand (28), followed by a rejuvenated England and a Fijian side benefiting once more from the inspirational guidance of ‘the master’, Waisale Serevi.
We examine the players who look set to decide the silverware in 2009, both in the World Series and at the Rugby World Cup Sevens for both men and women in March – a year during which the International Olympic Committee will also decide whether or not Sevens will be readmitted to the Olympic Games programme for 2016.
Stars set to shine in 2009
Stick and Ebersohn lead the way for SA
Mzwandile Stick has once again been a match-winner for South Africa. The captain’s outrageous sudden-death drop goal from the half way line against Fiji booted the Boks into the final in Dubai, where they beat a vastly improved England side to capture the title, before a partisan crowd was treated to Sevens heaven, Stick scoring the winning try to wrestle the George title away from staunch Tri Nations rivals New Zealand.
Robert Ebersohn is proving a more than able lieutenant to Stick. After impressing in a limited number of events last season and then playing with distinction at this year’s IRB Junior World Championship, Ebersohn turned down a Super 14 contract to commit to Treu’s full-time Sevens set-up – and with what effect.
The 20-year-old has been one of the sharpest attacking threats on the circuit and has also made life without the prolific Fabian Juries far more manageable for coach Treu than it might have been. Ten tries so far – the joint leading mark – are testament to his pace and clinical finishing ability and he has combined with Ryno Benjamin (nine tries) and Gio Aplon to produce arguably the most potent and certainly the quickest backline on show.
They owe plenty, of course, to the likes of Mpho Mbiyozo and Frankie Horne in the forwards, who have burdened the brunt of the grunt in the absence of injured captain Neil Powell and veteran Marius Schoeman.
Tomasi Cama – New Zealand’s pulse
Tomasi Cama has been one of the outstanding players of the season so far with eight tries and 100 points, more than anyone else. His ability to snipe for priceless scores and experience alongside New Zealand’s other Fijian-born playmaker Lote Raikabula has allowed Gordon Tietjens to seamlessly introduce a new crop of youngsters, including Tim Nanai-Williams and Julian Savea.
Tim Mikkelson and Nafi Tuitavake are both now settled regulars, Zar Lawrence has provided an extrovert foil to DJ Forbes’ more calm leadership and Solomon King has been superb after years of patient bench-warming.
Young, Damu – Fresh hope for England
Not for two years or more have England looked so together, so committed. Coach Ben Ryan deserves huge credit for building his side with his players, most of them unknown to the Twickenham faithful but all giving 100 percent after last year’s lacklustre displays.
Mickey Young has played with the energy of a coiled spring at half back and already has nine tries, while towering forwards Isoa Damu and Chris Cracknell must have covered more ground and made more tackles in two tournaments than during the whole of last season.
Tom Biggs gives them pace, Ben Gollings experience and with Mathew Tait and Tom Varndell apparently due to make comebacks expect great things in 2009.
Vucago, Mai – South Pacific generals
With Serevi back installed as coach all of Fiji will believe that trophies must follow and twice already they have claimed tough victories against rivals Samoa. Emosi Vucago gives them zest and energy, Lepani Nabuliwaqa has been mesmeric and ill-disciplined in equal measure, while the forwards have been strong and honest if lacking the genuine pace and guile of Sireli Naqelevuki or Setefano Cakau of recent years.
A couple of foreign-based additions will make them even stronger in Wellington in February but it’s a World Cup defence that Serevi really wants and don’t count out the return of the brilliant Rupeni Caucau.
For Samoa, captain Uale Mai has led the most experienced side on show with pride and passion and with more Sevens fitness work under their belt they will reach Cup semi finals, at least, in 2009. Lolo Lui is a classy operator and Mikaele Pesamino will be dangerous when once again Sevens-sharp but it’s in the forwards that they can really dominate, Ofisa Treviranus and Simaeka Mikaele back alongside the effervescent Alafoti Fa’osiliva.
Kingi, Morahan – Australian gold
A new coach with a new approach, Michael O’Connor has breathed new life into Australia’s Sevens programme and for the first time in a long while they look capable of beating the top four.
They still lack the fitness levels and finesse of New Zealand and South Africa, but in Richard Kingi and Luke Morahan, O’Connor has unearthed two gems. Kingi has chipped in with the second most points this season (73), while nobody has scored more tries than Morahan (10), who looks to possess the kind of speed endurance that coaches try and coach but, in reality, dream of finding.
David Mateus – Portugal’s secret weapon
Understated, calm and hard-working, David Mateus personifies the Portugal team. Pool winners for the first time ever in George, Portugal’s merry band beat Wales, Kenya and Samoa and lost in a close Plate final against England to show just how good they are at Sevens.
With 10 tries David Mateus has been the star in a team that prides itself on its collective spirit, while his twin and captain Diogo, Pedro Leal, Aderito Esteves and Vasco Uva are other World Cup veterans seemingly able to adapt to the demands of Sevens with ease. Leal has 63 points for the season, the third highest total. A team all the top 12 seeds will want to avoid in the Rugby World Cup Sevens draw.
Series and World Cup wide open
Argentina are currently ranked fifth in the Series with 16 points, which underlines just how competitive this season is set to become. Their captain Santiago Gomez Cora passed the 200 all-time try mark in Dubai and remains a potential match-winner against any opposition.
Of the other sides, Kenya have looked good in patches, Humphrey Kayange one of the season’s leading forwards and Collins Injera another with nine tries so far. Tonga make their entrance in Wellington in February, capable of beating anyone and even the Cook Islands will be out to emulate their success in reaching the Adelaide Cup quarters last season.
It takes a brave punter to bet on Sevens at any time but in this World Cup season you’d definitely be better keeping your money in your pocket..Tweet