Four-time Rugby Africa Women’s Sevens champions South Africa welcome back three experienced campaigners for this year’s tournament in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare this weekend.
Veroeshka Grain, Zenay Jordaan and Marithy Pienaar return from long injury lay-offs to be named in the 12-strong squad tasked with defending the title they won on home soil last year in Johannesburg.
Grain and Jordaan missed the Roma Sevens in June due to knee injuries, while Pienaar returns to action after breaking a bone in her hand.
All three players have been members of the team’s leadership group in the last few seasons, and they will inject skill and experience into the side, which will be invaluable following a two-month off-season.
They will be joined by a number of other experienced players including Lorinda Brown – who retains the captaincy – Phumeza Gadu, Jacqueline Kriel, Mathrin Simmers and Rachelle Geldenhuys.
South Africa won the Rugby Africa Women's Sevens Championship title in 2015 (pictured) when the tournament doubled as a regional qualifier for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, but the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee declined the invitation and runners-up Kenya represented Africa instead.
NO EASY MATCHES, WARNS SOUTH AFRICA COACH
Crucially, South Africa and Kenya have avoided each other in the draw, with the defending champions paired in Pool A alongside hosts Zimbabwe, Namibia and Senegal, while the Kenya Lionesses, Uganda, Madagascar and Tunisia will battle it out in Pool B. The Cup and Plate finals will take place on Sunday.
“Our preparations in the last two weeks have been good and we are excited for the challenge ahead,” said South Africa coach Renfred Dazel.
“The players had a good off-season and they are determined to pick up where they left off in the Roma Sevens. That said, Kenya recently returned from the Olympic Games and they will look to make their presence felt, and so will the other teams participating in the competition.
"There will certainly be no easy matches, so we have to be switched on from our first match and build momentum throughout the competition."
"There will certainly be no easy matches, so we have to be switched on from our first match and build momentum throughout the competition. This will be particularly important since we still have to build our match fitness after only getting together as a team two weeks ago.”
With Zimbabwe first up on Saturday, Dazel said knows they have to hit the ground running.
“Zimbabwe showed in the Rugby Africa Olympic qualifier last year that they are a passionate and determined side, and the fact that they will be playing in front of their home crowd will motivate them even more,” said Dazel.
“We expect all the teams to test us, but our focus has to be on ensuring that we implement our game plan and that we capitalise on our opportunities. This tournament will also serve as ideal preparation for the women’s sevens rugby tournament in Hokkaido in Japan next week.”
LIONESSES READY TO ROAR
Sinaida Aura and Cynthia Camilla are the only changes to the Kenya Lionesses side that finished 11th at Rio 2016 last month.
"Aura and Camilla both have big game experience. It was unfortunate that they missed out on the Rio Olympics but having played in Hong Kong and the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series in France, they certainly have plenty to offer. It is their chance to show us what they can do,” said recently appointed head coach Kevin Wambua.
While Wambua believes the experience gained from the Clermont-Ferrand round of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series last May, the Roma Sevens and the Olympic Games marks them out as serious title contenders, he refuses to look further than the pool stages.
“Our target is to avoid South Africa before the finals. It’s a very tricky pool because Madagascar has been playing so many tournaments and they have been improving every year, Uganda have also been preparing well and so they bring something to the game,” he commented.
For the first time in the tournament's history, this year the Rugby Africa Women’s Sevens Championship will be officiated by an all-female panel of referees and assistant referees.
Photo credit: Catherine Kotze, SASPA
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