In her first column for the official IRB Women's Sevens World Series website, Scrumqueens.com editor Alison Donnelly looks ahead to the first round of the Series in Dubai.
It takes no more than a quick glance at the pools and fixtures for the inaugural tournament of the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series in Dubai later this month to tell you all you need to know about just how competitive this Series is going to be.
There are some mouth-watering clashes in store for fans in the 12-team Dubai tournament, with England versus Spain, Canada versus New Zealand and USA against Australia just some of the highlights on the opening day of the Series.
Since the announcement of the make-up of the core sides to compete in the four-tournament Series, there’s been limited enough activity on the Sevens front as most sides have focused on readying themselves through intense training camps, making any sort of form guide quite tough to call going into Dubai.
A recent International Sevens tournament was held in Paris, won by England, while last weekend’s tournament in China was won by USA. Meanwhile, Spain are preparing at another tournament this weekend which involves RWC Sevens hosts Russia. But in truth none of these events will give us too much insight into what might happen in the Series opener later this month.
England favourites on 2011/12 form book
England should head to Dubai as favourites by virtue of winning two of the three IRB Challenge Cup tournaments in the 2011/12 season – a feat that has given them a prime spot in Pool A were they will face three invited teams in Spain, Brazil and South Africa.
The other pools throw up some fascinating games. Canada and New Zealand share pool two with China and Russia and there are simply no easy contests there. Canada took the Sevens world by storm in 2011, sweeping to a number of impressive tournament wins, but the Black Fern Sevens outfit, who we’ve seen so little of since the 2009 World Cup, have been quietly preparing hard with funding from the Go4 Gold programme in New Zealand.
The third pool sees reigning Rugby World Cup Sevens champions Australia face USA and another core teams in the Netherlands, as well as France – again no easy games here – in a group where it’s feasible to imagine each side winning all of their games.
There are some other interesting sub-plots brewing behind this first Series, given its timing with it coming in the same season as the Rugby World Cup Sevens - a huge focus for all of the qualified sides.
The first is how a number of the sides, particularly England and France, will balance their Sevens campaigns alongside a punishing 15-a-side programme early in 2013 as the Six Nations looms large.
When interviewed last week, England’s senior head coach Gary Street suggested that in 2013 the priority would be given to winning the Rugby World Cup Sevens, with the Six Nations for once a chance to give exposure to younger players. England, it was hinted, will then revert the other way in 2014, and target the 15s game in the lead-up to that summer’s World Cup.
That means some extremely tough calls about “who plays what” when the first real 'calendar clash' arrives, when England and New Zealand face each other in three tests at the same time as the Series opener in Dubai.
New Zealand have already had to make their decisions, leaving the likes of Carla Hohepa, Kendra Cocksedge and Huriana Manuel to focus on Sevens, and taking some new faces to England for the 15s clashes.
Broadening the base
Also of interest in Dubai will be examining the progress being made by the likes of Spain and France, neither of whom are core sides, but who have both been pushing hard on the Sevens front and will want to make a major mark on the Series.
The effect the Series could have on spreading the women's game is significant. In the Netherlands, for example, the national women’s team have been attracting a lot of media attention far removed from the usual coverage of rugby in a country not known for making a fuss about the sport. Their National Olympic Committee is 'on-side', and the same can be said of the likes of Canada, USA and even China. It’s definitely interesting to note that all four rounds of the Series are being played outside of the “big eight” rugby countries.
And that brings with it a double edged-sword: On the one hand the women’s game will be given an opportunity to sell the game to a wider audience than ever before. On the other, it may make it harder to attract the interest the women's game craves from supporters, sponsors and broadcasters.
All remains to be seen, but competitive action is guaranteed and it is certainly a massive step in the right direction.
Alison Donnelly is Editor of Scrumqueens.com