With New Zealand having been crowned HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023 champions in Toulouse last weekend, the main focus of this weekend’s HSBC London Sevens is on Olympic qualification and the battle to avoid relegation.
The All Blacks Sevens, Argentina and Fiji have already booked their place alongside hosts France as guaranteed top-four finishers but the race for the fourth and final automatic ticket to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games has gone to the final round.
One final spot for next year’s extravaganza remains, with Australia (125) holding a nine-point cushion over Samoa and South Africa (116).
Australia enter the competition on Saturday as defending champions having defeated their trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand in a thrilling Cup final in 2022, and will clinch the final spot with an appearance in Sunday’s semi-final.
Trae Williams’ return is the only change to the Australia squad that was on the wrong end of an upset against Canada in the Toulouse Cup quarter-finals. Williams comes in for Darby Lancaster for what will be his 10th Series tournament appearance.
Big challenge ahead for Samoa
As for Australia’s challengers, there could be a dream debut for Samoa’s Elijah Niko.
Niko was included in the Manu Samoa squad ahead of their postponed game against the Barbarians in November 2021, but this weekend will be the first time he has represented his country on a global stage, at the grand old age of 32.
"Physically and mentally I feel very good as I stay in shape all year round and health and fitness have always been part of my life," said Niko.
"My passion for rugby is the reason why I continue to play on and on
“And now, I can’t wait to finally represent my country at such an iconic stadium as Twickenham.
“After the disappointment of the Barbarians game being postponed at the last minute, I never thought I would get the chance again.”
Based in Aurillac in France, Niko is a powerful runner who has extensive club experience in England and France as well as a Rugby League background.
He joins a Samoa squad looking to recapture the form that won them the Cape Town Cup title in round three in a bid to oust Australia from that coveted qualifying spot.
“Definitely, it is the goal to qualify for the Olympics. These boys have worked so hard throughout,” said the World Series newcomer.
“We know we have a big challenge ahead of us this weekend but anything is possible.
“It will be, 100 per cent, a dream come true to be able to play in the Olympics.”
Samoa have no easy task on their hands as they have been drawn in Pool C with France, Australia and Spain.
Blitzboks aim for strong finish
Like Samoa, South Africa have little margin for error in their bid to take the direct route to Paris 2024.
But, for once, the Blitzboks are able to name an unchanged squad for the trip to London where they have been placed in the proverbial ‘Pool of Death’. The Blitzboks will face new Series champions New Zealand, Great Britain and USA in Pool A.
Impi Visser said the Blitzboks are fired up to finish the Series – that included a tournament win in Dubai, a heart-breaking semi-final defeat in Cape Town and a runners-up spot in Sydney in the first half of the season – on a high note.
“We want to finish strong after we’ve struggled in the last four or five tournaments,” said Visser.
“I also think it will be good for our confidence going into next season if we can go all the way and win this tournament, and hopefully qualify for the Olympic Games as well.
“It’s a big ask, but we are capable of doing it, so we’re looking forward to finishing the season on a strong note.”
For teams missing out on the spot through the Series, their attention will turn to the regional qualifiers for a second chance to book their tickets to Paris 2024.
High stakes at the bottom
The stakes also couldn’t be higher at the bottom of the men’s Series this season, as four nations are set to face off in the World Rugby Sevens Series 2024 Play-off to decide the 12th and final core team for next season.
Japan, who finished the tournament in Toulouse in 15th position in the Series standings, have been relegated from the Series and will compete this weekend as the invitational team in the Cup competition.
Canada, the fourth-place finishers in Toulouse, will meet Kenya, Uruguay and Tonga, aggregate winners of the recent World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series in Stellenbosch, to decide who will remain in the Series next season.
Elias Ergas comes in for Elias Hancock in the only change to the Canadian squad. A pacey outside back, Ergas has missed the last three rounds in Hong Kong, Singapore and Toulouse.
Tony Omondi is recalled by Kenya, while Uruguay swap Juan Tafernaberry for Valentin Grille. Tonga hand Series debuts to Joshua Tuipulotu and Samisoni Aki.
Teenage star returns for All Black Sevens
All Blacks Sevens assistant coach Tomasi Cama will stand in for All Blacks Sevens head coach Clark Laidlaw who has joined the New Zealand Under 20s team ahead of the World Rugby U20 Championship in South Africa.
Cama alongside assistant coach Euan Mackintosh have made only one change to the experienced line-up who were victorious in Toulouse. Xavier Tito-Harris joins the side after Moses Leo was ruled out with a back injury.
Teenager Tito-Harris, just 18 years of age, made his Series debut in Hong Kong and is now set to make his second tournament appearance.
Santiago Alvarez reclaims the captain’s armband from Gastón Revol for second-place Argentina, who are in Pool B with Ireland, Fiji and Japan. But Revol is still named in the squad and will extend his Series appearance record to 98 tournaments. Alejo Lavayen is the only new face from Toulouse.
For France, Joris Simon, Jefferson Lee-Joseph and Thomas Carol are included, while Fiji include Solodrau Radianirova with Iowane Teba the man to miss out.
Ireland’s squad has a different look to it with five changes of personnel as they look towards the European Games – the region’s Olympic qualifier – in June.
Harry McNulty continues as captain for the 11th and final stop of the 2023 Series, as Chay Mullins, Matthew McDonald, Hugo Lennox, Dylan O'Grady and the fit again Gavin Mullin join the squad following last weekend's sixth-place finish in Toulouse.
Great Britain are without one experienced player in Jamie Farndale but his absence is compensated for by the inclusion of Robbie Fergusson for his 42nd Series tournament. The only other change to the squad sees Jamie Barden come in for Harri Williams.
The same USA travelling squad from France made its way to London as the Men’s Eagles Sevens hope to end a season of trials and tribulations on a high note. But Mike Friday has opted to include Marcus Tupuola over Naima Fuala’au in his final 13.