Samoa and New Zealand reign in the rain in South Africa
The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series event in Cape Town ended with two brilliant finals as Samoa and New Zealand claimed victory in stormy conditions.
While Australia and New Zealand are clearly the dominant forces in the women’s game at present, the men’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series is a competition where pretty much any team can beat any other on its day.
After the first three rounds of the 2023 World Series, as many as eight different teams have stood on the podium as medal winners, and in the overall standings, just 10 points separate the top eight nations.
To see Samoa, whose only World Series title came back in 2009-10, at the top of the standings may surprise some but, as their former coach Damian McGrath points out, they have been knocking on the door for some time.
In the last seven tournaments spanning last season and the current campaign, Brian Lima’s team have made the Cup semi-finals on every occasion other than in Dubai.
Cape Town, the final destination of the year, was where it all finally came together with a 12-7 win over New Zealand seeing them claim their first Cup title since McGrath led them to the Paris title in 2016.
“It was awesome. I think 2022 has been their year,” said the Englishman.
“They ended up getting stuck in Dubai in January and had a terrible six months where they couldn’t get home. But out of that distress, they worked together as a team and their fitness levels came up and when the World Series restarted they were in imperious form and they have been knocking on the door at every tournament.
“It is not a win that surprises anyone involved because it is has been coming and coming and is much deserved. I am delighted for Samoa and the Samoan people.”
McGrath is currently in charge of Kenya and they play Samoa at the next tournament in Hamilton, on 21-22 January.
“Would you believe it, we have drawn them in Hamilton. They are the team to avoid. They are relentless in the way they attack and defend and they deserve everything they get because they are such a hard-working team.”
Not that the draw matters that much, according to McGrath.
The 64-year-old says in all his years coaching sevens (two decades), he has never known the circuit to be as competitive.
“If you take these last couple of weeks as an example, Great Britain beat South Africa who went on to win the Cup; Uruguay were the new team and they beat Great Britain; Uganda almost beat France; Kenya drew with Australia who are the world champions; Fiji didn’t make the quarter-finals, Spain beat New Zealand … the great thing about sevens is that everybody can beat everybody.
“The fact that Australia won the World Series (in 2022) by winning just the one tournament across the season gives you an indication as to how incredibly difficult it is for any one team to dominate.
“The levels have gone up,” he added. “In all the years of time I have been involved, this is probably as high a level as I have ever come across and 2022 certainly reflected that with how the results panned out.”
Now with his fifth World Series team having had spells with England, Canada and Germany as well as Samoa and current employers Kenya, McGrath is certainly well qualified to talk about trends in the game.
“Fitness, of course, has always been very important in sevens because of the very nature of the game, but now tactical awareness is becoming more and more into play. It is such a great level now and you just can’t just turn up and play,” he pointed out.
“When I first came into sevens 20 years ago, the breakdown was just something that got into the way of the game flowing. But now the breakdown is the key to it, just like it is in 15s.
“Teams look to dominate at the breakdown, lots of transitions happen there, it’s where most of the tries come from, and kick-offs are so vital and teams are so adept at stealing ball. The game has become more complete – every facet of the game is worked on and every player has to be adept at every area of the game.
“You can’t just say, he is a forward. Forwards have to play on the wing, they have to win the ball, distribute the ball and everybody has to have a turn of speed. It is a great game for any young aspiring player who wants to make his way in rugby.
“If countries use sevens properly, I think the 15s can only benefit. Two or three of the Ireland squad that beat the All Blacks came through the sevens systems; England back in the early 2000s a whole raft of players came through to do great things; New Zealand are the past masters at it and Fiji are probably the best exponents at the moment because many of their players get picked up by the French or in the UK and go into the 15s system and then go back into the Fiji 15s team.”