Launching in an Olympic season, the inaugural HSBC SVNS season promises to take rugby sevens to the next level when it all kicks off in Dubai on 2 December.
One of the fascinating aspects will be to see whether any other global stars of the 15s game join France’s Antoine Dupont and Australia’s Michael Hooper in trying their luck in the shorter version of the sport that has all the best bits of 15s neatly packaged together.
Dupont is not in France’s squad for this week’s opening tournament in Dubai. He will kick-off his bid for selection for the Olympics Games Paris 2024 in January and is expected to take part in the American leg of HSBC SVNS 2024, with stops in Vancouver and Los Angeles, as well as the Grand Final in Madrid.
How teams integrate players with limited experience of the shorter form of the game into existing squads and handle rotation gives SVNS another added edge, especially as promotion and relegation exists between the main series and the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger.
Experiment too much and you run the risk of having your fingers burnt ‘chasing the sun’ on a series that will be played in eight iconic warm-weather locations, from Dubai on the first weekend of December, through to Madrid in May/June.
Fans lucky enough to get their hands on the hottest tickets in town will witness a wide array of playing styles as the 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams all have their own unique DNA. Those 15s stars who do move across will have to be quick to adapt.
Matthew Johnston spent 10 years as an analyst on the sevens circuit, initially with Rugby Australia and now as High Performance Analysis Manager at World Rugby. In that time, he has seen how the game has evolved as different layers of tactical nuance are added.
Take the restart. It is commonly regarded as the third form of set-piece – along with the scrum and lineout – because, unlike in 15s, possession is still king.
“One of reasons why Argentina had such success on the Series last year and qualified automatically [for the Olympics] for the first time was their ability to win the ball back at the restart but also vary their kicking game as well, to go from contestable kicks to long kicks to the corner and pressurise the opposition that way,” Johnston observed.
As witnessed in 15s, attacking kicking has become more important in sevens as sides bid to manipulate well-set defences.
“Some teams leave the back field open and have seven in the front line of defence, instead of having six and a sweeper, especially in the women’s game, so you have to find another way to break them down or get through them as the attacking team.
“Australia women, for example, are superb at varying between having Charlotte Caslick as a sweeper, where she is a huge jackal threat as well, or getting her up in the line. So you may see that little kick in behind against them quite a lot when they do opt to go without a sweeper.”
Argentina men are masters at exploiting space behind the defensive line – with World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year 2021 Marcos Moneta the man to profit more than most, his searing pace allowing him to win the majority of foot races to grubber kicks.
No fewer than 26 of Los Pumas Sevens’ 228 tries on the 2023 Series were directly sourced from kicks out of hand – 44 per cent more than the teams ranked second in this category, Samoa and South Africa.
Similarly, Ireland’s women are no strangers to using that little nudge in behind, to capitalise on the speed of Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe and Beibhinn Parsons.
As with any sport there are teams that buck overall trends, and Fiji and France men both finished top four on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023 despite their share of the ball being less than 50 per cent.
“Possession is key, there is no doubt about it, you need the ball. But you need to be efficient with your possession,” Johnston added.
“Australia’s men were the most clinical team in converting possession inside the opposition 22 into points, scoring a try just over three-quarters of the time (76 per cent) they got into the ‘red-zone’.
“A lot of the possession stats are linked to a team’s playing style. For instance, New Zealand women pass with a lot of width, and keep the ball alive, and they are close to a 55 per cent share of possession in every match.”
It is interesting that South Africa’s men normally dominate possession but last year they only had 47 per cent possession and failed to make the top four for the first time in a long time.
Scrums, once regarded as a means-to-an-end in terms of restarting play, have become more frequent in sevens as the tap-penalty option becomes less attractive.
“Because referees can be quite strict on where a tap penalty is taken, if you can’t get an advantage by taking a quick-tap straight away, you might as well pull as many bodies as you can into one spot and have six players locked into the scrum,” said Johnston, explaining the shift towards the scrum.
In the women’s game there has been a big post-pandemic leap in the scrum option being taken, from an average of 3.3 per game in 2020 to 4.9 per game now.
“Locking eight players, including the half-backs, into a scrum, especially in centre field, can leave the defending team vulnerable to one-on-ones and speedsters like Ireland’s Murphy Crowe are deadly at exploiting such situations.”
Scrums are preferred to kicks to the corner if teams opt not to tap, as the lineout is seen as the riskier approach.
“The lineout is not as safe as a possession source because they are easier for defences to read due to a lack of variety.
“You very rarely see two or four-player lineouts anymore, it is now pretty much three against three.
“A lot of teams just go for that front-jump ball, where you try and get up in the air as quickly as possible, so if a throw is an inch or two too low, the opposition can get a hand to it and beat the player in the air.”
With Sam Dickson, especially, and Scott Curry ruling the air for years, New Zealand are the best practitioners at stealing opposition lineout ball. Just under 30 per cent of opposition throws (28/92) were won by the All Blacks Sevens on the last Series.
Thankfully, a strict adherence to time-keeping around the set-piece means this hasn’t had a negative impact on ball-in-play time.
At Men's Rugby World Cup 2023 only two of the 48 matches had an average ball-in-play time in excess of 40 minutes, and the average when two high performance teams came up against one another was a shade under 35 minutes.
On the 2023 Series, there was a 50 per cent ball-in-play match average in both the men’s and women’s competitions.
In addition to taking more scrums from penalties, men’s teams are now more like to consider taking a shot at goal. Whereas there wasn’t a single penalty kicked in the Series in 2020, there were four in 2022 and nine last year.
This can be explained in part by the competitiveness of the Series, where around 40 per cent of men’s games last year were settled by seven points or fewer. Given the fine margins and the fact defences are so well organised, teams are more inclined to take whatever points are on offer.
While expert eyes like Johnston read the game so well and can spot developing trends, no amount of analysis can predict some of the things that go on.
No one could have foreseen Uruguay’s Guillermo Lijtenstein heading the ball forward to score a try at the Sydney Sevens – well before Joe Marler used his distinctive bonce to create a try for England at Rugby World Cup 2023.
“I love sevens, it is a fabulous game. The fact it is our Olympic format is obviously special, but it is also special because it can be played in so many different ways,” said Johnston, excited at the prospect that HSBC SVNS 2024 is just around the corner.
“It still has all the traditional elements of rugby – catch, pass, tackle etc. but with other stuff thrown in.
“You have big crowds, long-distance travel, bizarre instances, and players have to have the ability to switch on and off, and go again after a disappointment.
“Physically it is so demanding but it’s probably under-rated just how big a mental challenge it is as well.”