Fiji Sevens the team to beat in Dubai
Story and Photo: www.irbsevens.com
Fiji won their first Cup title since the 2010 New Zealand Sevens last weekend in Australia, ensuring they got off to the best possible start in the 2011/12 HSBC Sevens World Series.
This weekend in Dubai, however, defending champions England, defending Series champions New Zealand and reigning RWC Sevens winners Wales are just a few of the teams who will be looking to challenge Fiji for the trophy.
But Fiji, who looked back to their best in Australia, will be hard to stop not only in their pool matches against Argentina, UAE and Samoa, but also on day two.
"It was a very proud moment for Fiji [winning in Australia], not just for winning but for how we played and won that tournament," said new head coach Alifereti Dere.
"But we have to also do well here in Dubai for our 2011/12 campaign and to better our position of fifth from last year.
"By winning the first tournament it set us a platform and it is a good start from Fiji's point of view, but we need to maintain our style of rugby and what we are trying to implement"
So who is best set to challenge Gold Coast winners Fiji and close the gap at the top of the HSBC Sevens World Series standings?
New Zealand will be hurting after that Cup final reverse at Skilled Park. It's not often you see a kiwi side give up a lead in a final and it had been nine years since they last lost a Cup final to Fiji. DJ Forbes looked as fit as he's been in a while, as did Solomon King up front. Tim Mikkelson was a constant threat as were the Fijian magicians in the side, Tomasi Cama and Lote Raikabula, and they will always be there or thereabouts.
One to watch: New youngster Joe Webber
South Africa have suffered a major blow in losing IRB Sevens Player of the Year Cecil Afrika to a damaged rib. Rather than risk him in Dubai, Paul Treu has chosen to give him time to recover ahead of their home round next week in his native Port Elizabeth, and has instead drafted in a fine replacement in Branco du Preez to operate alongside the likes of captain Kyle Brown, Robert Ebersohn and the fit-again Renfred Dazel.
One to watch: Giant forward Frankie Horne
England mis-fired at the start of the season on the Gold Coast, but they arrive in Dubai as the overwhelming crowd favourites and the defending champions. Dan Norton and Tom Powell took little part in Australia - but both are now fully fit - while Christian Lewis-Pratt comes in to make his debut in the backline.
One to watch: Fijian-born forward Isoa Damu
Wales finished last season strongly, reaching the Cup semi finals in both Scotland and England, and Paul John's men picked up where they left off, even with a batch of newcomers. Comfortable winners against England on day one on the Gold Coast, they also finished strongly by beating Samoa to take the Plate.
One to watch: 18-year-old Harry Robinson
Samoa welcomed back their heart beat in Uale Mai for the start of the season, and he was joined by another World Series winner, Lolo Lui. Stephen Betham needs their experience too, having lost both of his outstanding forwards from the past few years, Ofisa Treviranus and Alafoti Fa'osiliva, to contracts in Europe.
One to watch: New forward Paul Perez
Australia were beaten to the bronze place on their home patch last week by the Springbok Sevens team, but given there were eight new faces in the team Michael O'Connor again did wonders and the players were magnificent. Hamish Angus returns for Dubai to provide that creative spark and they will be dangerous for all comers.
One to watch: Captain Ed Jenkins
France seem to have undergone something of a renaissance under new coach Frederic Pomarel. The players look hungry for success, there is a new found cohesion to their play and they have some real talent at their disposal. Former captain Paul Albaladejo is a constant threat and giant back Jean-Baptiste Gobelet is a physical presence.
One to watch: Terry Bouhraoua
The threats from the rest of the teams will be many and varied, guaranteeing that there will be no easy games at 7he Sevens.
Portugal return one year after beating England in memorable fashion, and have a familiar looking squad.
Canada recently won the Pan American Games, beating both USA and Argentina in the process, and both of those latter teams are strong here in Dubai one week on from the Gold Coast.
Scotland looked spritely in Australia, Zimbabwe are an experienced outfit full of pace and athleticism, like their continental rivals Kenya. And finally, the UAE, playing their first tournament under that new national banner, will take the pitch full pride and passion.