IT IS perhaps fitting that the two teams which have enjoyed the most success at the Wellington Sevens enter the tournament sitting at the top of the HSBC Sevens World Series standings.
However, it is interesting to note that only 19 points separate the two top teams – New Zealand and Fiji – and eighth place Samoa, making it one of the closest title races ever.
After three rounds at the tail-end of last year, the circuit resumes this weekend at Westpac Stadium, where the Mardi gras atmosphere will once again be to the fore.
New Zealand, who has won its home tournament five times, including last year, and Fiji enter the fourth leg of the series at the top of the overall standings with 51 points.
Coach Gordon Tietjens once again has a physically imposing squad, one which has been bolstered further with the inclusion of Highlanders and former All Blacks wing Hosea Gear, who will make a one-off appearance.
Skipper DJ Forbes, Frank Halai, Tim Mikkelson, Tomasi Cama and Solomon King have become permanent fixtures in the side in recent times, while Toby Arnold has also played his fair share of the abbreviated form of the game.
Momentum is also with the Kiwis after they won the Port Elizabeth tournament early in December.
All things going to plan, New Zealand should once again find itself featuring at the business end of the tournament. It should breeze past Scotland and Japan, but in Samoa faces a stiff challenge in its final pool game.
But don’t write Fiji off. It beat New Zealand 26-12 in the Cup final of the inaugural Gold Coast tournament, and three times – 2000, ’06 and ’10 – it has spoiled New Zealand’s Wellington party.
It will take heart from the fact that Tietjens’ men did look vulnerable in Dubai, where they dropped three games in a row and failed to reach the Cup semis for the first time in two years.
Still, that’s not to say that these two teams that will dominate proceedings.
Beaten Port Elizabeth finalists South Africa (third), who have welcomed former Bulls centre Stephan Dippenaar into their side, and Dubai winners England (fourth) loom as Cup challengers, as do France (fifth) and Australia (sixth).
South Africa and England will clash in Pool B in a game which is likely to define who tops the group and hence gets the easier Cup quarter-final berth.
France has been a big improver on the circuit this year. The team is more accomplished, fitter, canny and disciplined, as was evidenced in Dubai when it reached its first Cup final in seven years.
Two players in the French squad – Terry Bouhraoua and Renaud Delmas – have scored 12 tries this series.
In 18 year-old Lewis Holland Australia has a proven tryscorer, with the youngster having scorched in for nine five-pointers so far.
It will meet France in pool play in what shapes as an intriguing encounter regarding the fortunes of both teams.
Wales (seventh on 36 points) and Samoa (32) round out the top eight and are capable of upsetting the applecart on their day.
Tom Iosefo, who has scored 12 tries this series, loom as Samoa’s danger man, while Owen Williams is the go-to guy for Wales.
Surprisingly, crowd favourites Kenya are way behind in 14th spot.
The new-look side has struggled this season after losing a host of experienced players, having only won three games so far. It has suffered disappointing losses against Japan, Portugal and Zimbabwe during the series.
South Africa and the USA will play the opening game of the tournament on Friday.
Pool A: New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, Japan
Pool B: South Africa, England, USA, Cook Islands
Pool C: Fiji, Wales, Argentina, Tonga
Pool D: France, Australia, Canada, Kenya
Points after three rounds: Fiji (51), New Zealand (51), South Africa (48), England (47), France (39), Australia (38), Wales (36), Samoa (32), Argentina (28), Scotland (23), USA (17), Canada (12), Portugal (6), Kenya (5), Tonga (5), Zimbabwe (4), Papua New Guinea (3), Japan (2), Morocco (1), Niue (1), United Arab Emirates (1)« Back to Archives
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.