“Like having a stone in your shoe.”

That’s how Black Ferns Sevens coach Cory Sweeney described the Christmas break after the 2023 sevens series champions finished second in the HSBC SVNS 2024 opener in Dubai and third in Cape Town, and lost their captain to a serious knee injury. 

While they haven’t gone full ‘new year, new me’, in this Olympic year and with HSBC SVNS Perth on between 26-28 January, there’s renewed focus for a team that has set the standard in women’s sevens for years. 

“We had to grind through Dubai and played our best game in the final,” Sweeney said. “Then we played some nice rugby in Cape Town but the French in the semi put a lot of line speed pressure on us and you could see they’d trained well and had a lot of matches in pre-season. 

“Overall, we were disappointed with the results. It’s a high expectation this team has of ourselves and each other, and we probably didn’t feel like we played to our potential. We’re really motivated to put on some good performances.”

As New Zealand basks in a balmy summer, wedding and festival season in full swing, and with the squad based in one of the country’s summer hotspots, Sweeney was pleased with how the players came back into training earlier this month. 

“We tested on the first day back, which is always an incentive to do as much as you can over the break to put yourself in a really good place. We had six personal bests on the bronco so I think that’s a pretty good sign that the girls were pretty disciplined through leave and are really energised by the year to come.”

Sweeney and his coaching team have identified areas they want to address to hit the ground running in Perth. 

“We used a big squad of 20 in pre-season, so we weren’t able to get to the real pointy end of our combinations but also, accuracy of skill set, accuracy under pressure and fatigue can only truly improve by playing on the HSBC SVNS 2024 series. 

“Scores matter, tries matter, every little moment matters and if you don't get a couple of those things right in a row, it can cost you games.”

The loss of captain Sarah Hirini for the foreseeable future after surgery for an ACL injury is two-fold for New Zealand given her huge influence as a leader and as a player. 

“Gossy (Hirini) will 100 per cent want this team to progress and be playing some amazing rugby by the time she starts coming back into the mix,” Sweeney said. “She’s still a leader in this programme and will continue to have lots of influence but some of the big things in her core roles, like her aerial game and the breakdown, we need to grow others in that space.”

Hirini’s decision-making under pressure is also a key asset the Black Ferns Sevens will now be without, but the return of World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year 2023, newlywed Tyla King (née Nathan-Wong) will help to offset the loss of their captain. 

The injuries to Hirini and Australia’s Demi Hayes, proves that there’s no way teams will get through the year with just 12 players, Sweeney insisted. 

“We need to be really strategic around making sure that all players are ready physically and mentally but also rugby ready. Then, making sure that we get the right energy at the right times throughout the season is going to be important because it is a long season ... for the men, they dropped tournaments but for us we’ve actually gained two tournaments so it’s a different year for the women’s teams.”

Sweeney believes the Black Ferns Sevens will again be in the mix for big things this season. While the Australian leg of the series has moved cities, New Zealand are the defending champions from Sydney and want to continue their strong record on the soil of their biggest rivals. 

“We’ve got some really experienced players that are coming towards the end of their careers and I think this is a really big moment. If we get the balance between a group of experienced players that have done almost everything in the game and know exactly what it takes to win, with some of the youth coming through, I think it’s going to be a really special group and special year."

In Dubai and Cape Town, there was a real sense that every team is building towards something big and Sweeney expects that feeling to ramp up in Perth. 

He said: “Pinnacle year, you can feel the energy, you can feel the pressure, momentum, the game's changing, our athletes are changing, the tension between coaches is changing … you certainly know you’re in in 2024”

By Rikki Swannell