First up, though, is the new HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series which gets underway in Dubai this weekend and next before moving on to Malaga, the latest addition to the circuit, on 21-23 January.
While some teams recently took part in the truncated, two-tournament 2021 series in Canada in September, for others this is a new opportunity to lay down a marker and show they are in good shape to compete for medals when we get to the business end of this busiest of sevens seasons.
South Africa’s men and Great Britain’s women are the two teams with the most momentum behind them following their exploits in Vancouver and Edmonton. The Blitzboks stormed to victory in both tournaments to claim their third World Series title in five years and fourth overall, while Great Britain won the Fast Four tournament at both venues with some ease.
But with some of the sevens big guns back, including reigning Olympic champions Fiji, the Blitzboks know they face an altogether more difficult challenge if they are going to complete a hat-trick of tournament wins by mounting a successful defence of the Dubai title they won when it was last played in 2020.
Blitzboks have record run in their sights
Unfortunately for Neil Powell’s side, prolific winger Angelo Davids is still injured. Davids set a new individual try-scoring record for the Vancouver event with 10 tries, but fractured his hand in the final against Kenya and is still not fit enough to return.
Four other players who featured in Canada are also ruled out but the Blitzboks will be boosted by the presence of experienced duo of Branco du Preez and Impi Visser.
Du Preez is currently the Blitzboks’ most capped player with 75 tournaments to his name, which include 380 matches and a total of 1,355 points.
If South Africa enjoy a clean sweep of wins in the pool stages and then win their quarter-final, they’d match their ever World Series winning streak of 16 matches, set between 2008-09.
South Africa will be expected to compete with Great Britain for top spot in Pool C but, as everyone knows, sevens has a reputation for throwing up some surprise results.
Ireland impressed in reaching the Vancouver semi-finals and will be all the better for the experience, while Japan’s failure to secure qualification for RWC Sevens 2022 in Dubai last week makes them a dangerous opponent as they’ll still be smarting from the disappointment of losing their Asian crown to Hong Kong.
South Africa and Ireland have the honour of kicking off the men’s competition in World Series 2022 and the Blitzboks will need no reminding that they were held to a 19-19 draw the last time they met in Los Angeles in February 2020.
New era for Fiji’s men
As for Pool A, all eyes will be on double Olympic champions Fiji, who did not have the opportunity to compete in Canada. Head coach Gareth Baber has moved on and while it is something of a new era for the team, the skill levels in the squad will no doubt be as high as always, even with several changes of personnel.
Josua Vakurunabili and Waisea Nacuqu are the only players remaining from the gold medal-winning team at the Tokyo Olympics, with the absentees including Jerry Tuwai, the World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Decade. Tuwai will miss the Dubai double bill as he prepares for his wedding which is set to take place next month.
Australia, Canada and France will attempt to make it as uncomfortable as possible for Fiji in Pool A.
Pool B looks as wide open as any. After collecting the bronze medal in Tokyo, Argentina will have the respect of Kenya, USA and Spain.
Kenya finished second and third in Vancouver and Edmonton, while any USA squad containing legends of the game like Carlin Isles, Folau Niua, Martin Iosefo and Perry Baker – who have 221 tournament appearances between them – has to be feared. Meanwhile, don’t discount Spain, as they chase their 100th World Series win.
Women’s Series makes welcome return
With the entire HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series cancelled in 2021 due to COVID-19, Dubai, the traditional starting point to a new season, is more eagerly awaited than ever.
It has been 663 days since the last Women’s Sevens Series action, with New Zealand winning the Sydney Sevens on 2 February, 2020.
New Zealand’s absence from the line-up opens the door for a new winner to be crowned in Dubai. Of the 10 teams competing for silverware, only Australia have only won the Dubai title before.
Australia have named a new-look and youthful squad led by Demi Hayes but World Series regulars Sharni Williams, Charlotte Caslick and Dom Du Toit will provide invaluable experience.
Four teams have competed in a Cup final in Dubai but have never lifted the trophy, with Canada finishing second at each of the past two events, and USA, Russia, and South Africa all winning silver. South Africa are not involved this time around.
Given the make-up of the field and their past history at the event – three of their eight tournament titles have been won there, ordinarily 2016 Olympic champions Australia would start as strong favourites, but preventing France from topping Pool A will take some doing.
Silver medallists at the Tokyo Olympics, Les Bleues Sevens finished fourth on the 2020 Series, medaling once with bronze in Hamilton. They have been Cup semi-finalists in Dubai twice, in 2014 and 2015, but have never reached the Cup final at this location.
USA will fancy their chances, too, and while Emilie Bydwell is the new head coach, she has been heavily involved with the sevens programme for a number of years and knows the players well.
Joyce, the people's choice
Meanwhile, Fiji underlined their credentials as a force to be reckoned with by winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, at the expense of Great Britain, who join them in Pool B. as they make their Women’s World Series debut.
Having Jasmine Joyce on their side clearly marks down Great Britain as one to watch. The Welsh flyer was sensational in the Fast Four tournaments, top-scoring across both events, and can make something out of nothing in the blink of an eye.
With Great Britain only competing in Dubai, Joyce will want to make the most of her limited opportunities to impress on the World Series before returning to Wales duty.
Much could be riding on the outcome of the final fixture of pool play on Saturday when Fiji meet Great Britain, although Russia, Canada and Ireland are all capable of ripping up the Olympic formbook and going the distance themselves.