The Oceania Rugby Sevens Championship returns to the Fijian capital of Suva for a third straight year with regional bragging rights and places at the Sydney and Hamilton rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and the series qualifier in Hong Kong at stake.

With the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series round in Dubai only weeks away, the two days of top-level competition also provide an opportunity for players to step up and the coaches to work on combinations and systems.

Different approaches have been taken in terms of selection in the men’s event with teams like defending champions Fiji and New Zealand, who were beaten 26-0 in last year’s final, opting for a mix of youth and experience, while Australia head coach Tim Walsh, for example, has opted to field a full-strength squad.

Returning to the Australian set-up is vice-captain Nick Malouf, who last played for his country at the London Sevens in 2017 for before starting a stint at English Premiership club Leicester Tigers.

“We have been busy preparing for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, and the Oceania Sevens Championship is an important part of our preparation before we kick off in Dubai.

“We will get to face off against the best in our region, with varying styles of rugby to test ourselves against and playing at the spiritual home of sevens in Fiji is a great way to kick-off the international season.”

2017 bronze medallists Australia last won the Oceania Championship in 2015. Since then, Fiji have been the dominant force, winning three out of the last four titles.


New caps

Surprisingly, New Zealand are yet to get their names on the men's trophy, something they’ll be looking to put right in the 11th edition of the competition.

New Zealand coach Clark Laidlaw has two new caps in his squad in Scott Gregory and Taylor Haugh along with the return of several players from long-term injury.

Ngarohi McGarvey-Black and Amanaki Nicole had promising debuts in 2018 but injury cut their seasons short, while Luke Masirewa and Tone Ng Shiu get a chance after limited game time in 2018.

Laidlaw said the Oceania Rugby Sevens Championship was a great chance for the team to get out on the field before the world series kicks off.

“We’re excited to get back out there. We’ve had small numbers in pre-season with a lot of guys still with Mitre 10 Cup but the players we have had are working hard and can’t wait to get into some rugby.

“This tournament presents a good opportunity for some of our younger players to step up with a number of our senior boys not playing and also builds depth by giving players a crack at this level.

Dylan Collier and Sam Dickson will captain the team, with regular co-captains Tim Mikkelson and Scott Curry travelling with the team as reserves.

While Fiji, New Zealand and Australia will be among the leading contenders to take to the podium again, teams such as New Caledonia have different priorities.

“We hope to have a good tournament but the first thing for us is learning about rugby and especially rugby sevens,” said team manager Mafatuna Tui.

New Caledonia finished 10th in 2017 and are pooled with New Zealand and Nauru.

Stepping stone

While Dubai sees the kick off of the men’s world series, the women’s got underway last month in Glendale, USA.

New Zealand took the first tournament title on offer, but the squad fielded in Suva will bear little resemblance to the one that opened the international sevens season so impressively in winning a sixth successive global title in Colorado.

Only Terina Te Tamaki and Shakira Baker retain their places as the defending Oceania champions New Zealand put their trust in youth.

Coach Crystal Kaua said exposing the next level of sevens talent to international competition was crucial in the development of players.

“Our job in this development team is to get this group of players that are behind the fully contracted squad ready to transition into that space. It really is a stepping stone to that Black Ferns Sevens squad and we have already seen players graduate from this team into full-time contracts,” said Kaua, whose husband Ben will coach the Cook Islands' women's team.


University challenge

Australia coach John Manenti has opted to reward the stars of this season’s Aon University Sevens Series with an opportunity to impress in national colours.

Rhiannon Byers, Kennedy Cherrington, Jakiya Whitfeld, Laurie Waldie, Madison Ashby, Hagiga Mosby and Eva Karpani will be part of the Australian side, looking to go one better than last year when they lost 12-5 to New Zealand in the final.

“The Oceania Sevens Championship is a great opportunity for us to test our next generation of elite talent against the best in the region,” said Manenti.

“The Aon University Sevens Series allowed us to see some fantastic players in proper series conditions and the seven players we are taking to Fiji have the chance now to really step up in the gold jersey.

“Sariah Paki and Jakiya Whitfeld have been in our youth development programmes and I’m keen to see how they adapt to international rugby following on from two very strong seasons of Aon Sevens.

“Page McGregor and Cassie Staples will be present from the regular squad, with both players keen to get more game time under their belt ahead of round two of the world series in Dubai.

“For the team, being able to play in Suva is going to be quite an experience. We know how much sevens is a religion in Fiji and the team is looking forward to the experience.” 

The Oceania Rugby Sevens Championship will be streamed live on the Oceania Rugby Facebook page outside of Fiji and New Zealand. Sky New Zealand will show live in New Zealand with host broadcaster Fiji TV  showing delayed live coverage in Fiji.