New Zealand’s dominance of South Africa in the final of the men’s HSBC Sydney Sevens was so complete that the All Blacks Sevens looked as though they could score from anywhere, and from any source of possession.
The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023 leaders went on to win 38-0 but the result was effectively sewn up just before half-time when they scored twice through HSBC Player of the Final Joe Webber and captain Sam Dickson, with both tries emanating directly from scrum moves.
It was not the first time the Blitzboks had come unstuck from a scrum as Fiji had scored against them from one in centre-field in the Cup semi-final.
Rugby sevens is still a fast-paced, all-action game and it is no surprise that the biggest source of tries is still from a ‘quick tap’ following a penalty, where teams try to capitalise on disorganised defences.
But as we witnessed in Sydney, scrums and lineouts, from penalties kicked to touch, are becoming more prevalent as the strategic side of rugby sevens comes to the fore.
Data collated from this season’s World Series by World Rugby’s Game Analysis department shows the scrum is now second only to the quick tap as a source of tries, overtaking general play turnovers.
Naturally, this applies to some teams more than others, and none are fonder of using the scrum as an attacking platform than Ireland’s women.
Incredibly, 42 per cent of the 60 tries (25) they have scored in the first four tournaments – Dubai, Cape Town, Hamilton and Sydney – came that way.
Half of the 14 teams to have played on the women’s Series still use a quick tap as their go-to source of tries because of the quick ball they generate.
But Ireland are certainly not an outlier in this respect, with the women’s teams of the USA (31 per cent) and Great Britain (27 per cent) also using the scrum as their primary source of tries.
Even women’s Series leaders New Zealand use the scrum as a strike weapon, scoring 17 per cent of their tries from one. Only the number of tries they score from turnovers created by defensive pressure (22 per cent) is higher.
Los Pumas Sevens well set
From a men’s perspective, no team loves the set-piece more than Argentina, the gold medal winners in Hamilton.
Scrum and lineout are joint first (18 per cent) as Los Pumas Sevens’ main source of tries, meaning just over a third of their tries come from set-piece plays rather than in open play.
Of all the men’s teams, Kenya use the scrum as a try-source the most (26 per cent) with the USA adopting similar tactics to the Women’s Sevens Eagles by profiting in this area to the tune of 24 per cent.
As a whole, more and more teams are changing their penalty-taking habits and are now choosing to either to kick to touch and potentially score from a lineout or go for a scrum because of the success that the set-piece delivers in terms of getting tries on the board.
The slower set-piece options create more space for attacking teams to manipulate defences and, as such, the attacking skill and flair at the heart of sevens is not lost, but enhanced by the more structured elements of the game.
Argentina, for example, kick 59 per cent of their penalties to touch, which is fractionally ahead of Hong Kong’s men, who were the invitational side on home soil.
In turn, this has led to a 50 per cent increase in the number of scrums per game (one to 1.5), while the number of lineouts remain roughly the same compared to 2020.
As with all formats of rugby, the beauty of the game is the variety of styles that different teams offer and Australia’s men and women, and New Zealand’s women opt for the more traditional tap penalty almost without fail (99 per cent).
When the quick tap is not available, the three teams go to the rehearsed set tap to manipulate defensive lines with their passing and running lines.
With New Zealand and Australia’s women dominating the Series of late, it’s clearly a proven tactic and one they will no doubt continue to employ in the three remaining tournaments (Vancouver, Hong Kong and Toulouse).
Between them, they have won all four Cup titles on offer, with the Black Ferns Sevens winning three to Australia’s one.
The Black Ferns Sevens have a 12-point lead at the top of the standings, on 78 points with Australia and the USA in second on 66 points and well clear of the chasing pack.
However, it is a different story in the men’s Series where all five of the tournaments played to date have been won by different teams and as many as nine teams have medalled.
Australia came flying out of the traps to win the opening tournament in Hong Kong before 2021 champions South Africa and fast-emerging Samoa claimed the gold medal in Dubai and Cape Town, respectively.
Argentina then won in Hamilton, and leaders New Zealand topped the podium in Sydney, following two silver medals in Hamilton and Cape Town.
South Africa, Fiji and USA are the only other teams to have medalled more than once.
With France qualifying as hosts, eight teams remain in the running for a top-four finish and automatic Olympic qualification.
At the bottom of the table, Japan are in danger of automatic relegation, as Canada, Spain, Kenya and Uruguay battle to avoid the relegation play-off in London.
With four tournaments completed, and only three remaining, the women’s Series top four, along with automatic Olympic qualification, will be decided sooner rather than later.
France, as hosts, have already qualified and New Zealand look likely to be the second team to confirm their place in the line-up at the conclusion of the tournament in Vancouver.
A maximum of 60 points can be won in the remaining three tournaments, and with Great Britain and Fiji currently on 36 points, the highest they could reach is 96.
If New Zealand reach the final at BC Place, they will be guaranteed 18 points, taking them from 78 to the 96 mark.
Depending on the results, Australia will most likely qualify in Hong Kong, while the remaining two places may also be sorted before Toulouse.
There will be no relegation from the women’s Series in 2023.