After a one-year hiatus, men’s and women’s European international sevens returns next weekend with a new name.
What was once called the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series will now be known as the Rugby Europe Championship Sevens Series, with the Trophy and Conference 1 divisions sitting underneath the flagship tournament.
The first leg of the men’s and women’s Championship will feature eight and nine teams respectively from across the continent and will take place in Lisbon, Portugal at the same time on 5-6 June.
The second leg takes place in Moscow, Russia later on in the month with the women’s tournament played on 25-26 June and the men’s tournament on 26-27 June.
Reigning champions Russia will be looking to reclaim their crown in the women’s event, while Germany will be bidding for consecutive titles in the men’s. A fourth place finish on the Lodz Sevens in July 2019 was enough for them to pip France to the silverware last time around.
For Germany’s experienced head coach, Damian McGrath, the Rugby Europe Championship Sevens Series heralds the start of a new era, for him personally and for the team.
McGrath signed a five-year deal to become Germany men’s sevens head coach in October 2019, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic the Englishman has only led the team in two tournaments to date – the Chile and Uruguay rounds of the inaugural World Rugby Challenger Series. They won the first and were knocked out in the quarter-finals in the other.
Now, after the 2020 season was cancelled in its entirety, Germany are ready to take to the field again, albeit with alterations to the squad that was triumphant 18 months ago.
“The team that won the European Championships and the team that I took to South America last year and won on the World Challenger Series, are now getting to the end now, most are around the 30-years-old mark. The struggle for us to find a younger generation. It’s the end of this generation and we’re looking to step up with another one,” McGrath said.
A recent training match with Spain – who McGrath identifies as Germany’s main challengers – has also cost them three frontline players.
“Within two minutes Bastian Himmer broke his cheekbone, Ben Ellermann – a real powerhouse – damaged his elbow, and Niki Koch, a policeman from Hannover, got a bad ACL injury. It was one of those where it never rains but it pours,” he lamented.
“For countries like ours, outside of the top line, there are lots of really good players around but what they don’t have and what we don’t have is strength in depth.”
Spain are the team to beat
On the plus side, Carlos Soteras Merz, who led the team to victory in Chile, has recovered from injury in time to lead the side in Lisbon, where Germany find themselves pooled with Portugal, Georgia and Lithuania. Spain, Italy, Russia and Poland make up the Pool B line-up.
Regular European competitors, Ireland and France, are absent from the line-up because of their involvement in the Olympic Repechage, and there’s no England, Scotland and Wales due to Great Britain’s qualification for the Olympics.
“We go to these new Europeans as champions but I think Spain will be the favourites. They are in the world series, and we went and had a camp with them a month or so ago and the number of players they have, and the quality of players they have, make them very much the ones to watch for this tournament,” he said.
“I know it rankles with them that they missed out on the last World Cup in sevens and missed out this time on the Olympics.
“They have invested heavily on their sevens programme and rugby in general is on the up in Spain, and they will be looking to make a mark and let everyone know they are one of the top teams around.
“I don’t know much about Lithuania or Georgia, but Portugal have sevens heritage,” he added, when assessing the threat posed by Germany’s pool opponents. “It wasn’t that long ago, when I was coaching Samoa that we played them in the world series. So I know they will have a quality about them, and being the home team, I am sure they will want to put up a good performance.”
📅 | The match schedule for the Women's Lisbon leg of the 7s Championship has been revealed 👇https://t.co/4niRUnDvKD— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) June 1, 2021
Germany, however, are ready to roll their sleeves up and if they are to give up their title, it won’t be without a fight.
“We don’t have speed as such and we’re not very big. So, with us, it is all based around work ethic; we try to out-work teams,” McGrath said.
“Despite the injury disruptions and some of the old guard moving on, McGrath is optimistic his new-look squad can make a big impression.
“The fact that Ireland and France and the Home Nations aren’t playing makes it tantalising: We could really do well and hold our position as European champions. It is a real opportunity for us.
“I am pleased with the group we have here; we have some talented players, two or three of them wouldn’t look out of place in any other team in the world.
“Fabian Heimpel, Tim Lichtenberg, Anjo Buckman … these guys could play in most teams, and we have a young Irish lad called Jack Hunt who has got a German passport. He’s 6’4 (1.93m) and plays on the wing. This will be his first tournament and is one to look out for.”
Meanwhile, Germany’s women’s sevens team find themselves in with defending champions Russia and Romania in Pool A for the opening leg of their event in Lisbon.
Poland, Belgium and Wales make up Pool B, while Scotland face Iberian opposition in Pool C in Spain and Portugal.
All tournaments will be live streamed on Rugby Europe TV.