With the 12 women's teams counting down the hours until they make their debut at the HSBC New Zealand Sevens on Saturday, the squads for the fourth round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2020 have been announced.
New Zealand becomes the 12th country to host a round of the women's series since it began in late 2012 and Hamilton the 17th location after Dubai, Houston, Guangzhou, Amsterdam, Atlanta, Sao Paulo, Langford, London, Clermont-Ferrand, Sydney, Las Vegas, Kitakyushu, Paris, Glendale, Biarritz and Cape Town.
The biggest news ahead of the 41st event in women's series history is the return of a familiar face in Australia's Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist Emilee Cherry (pictured) following the birth of her daughter Alice in June 2019.
The former World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year will become the latest Australian to reach 30 series tournaments, some 19 months after her 29th in Paris when she scored the last-gasp try against France that clinched a second series title for her country and a place in the Cup final.
With it being two years this weekend since Australia claimed their last Cup title, on home soil in Sydney, the return of Cherry, Dominique du Toit and Emma Sykes after long lay-offs couldn't come at a better time for coach John Manenti with Shannon Parry, Evania Pelite and Charlotte Caslick sidelined.
Australia, beaten finalists in both Glendale and Cape Town, are not the only team to welcome back experienced campaigners in Hamilton with hosts New Zealand boosted by the return of captain Sarah Hirini and former World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year Michaela Blyde who missed the double triumph in Dubai and Cape Town due to injury.
A Rugby World Cup winner in sevens and 15s, Kelly Brazier will become the fourth Black Ferns Sevens player to reach 30 tournaments and her team-mates will want to want to mark the occasion by becoming the third nation to win their home event after Australia in Sydney in 2018 and USA in Glendale last October.
Cherry and Brazier are not alone in reaching 30 tournaments in Hamilton as Australia's Emma Tonegato, Spanish duo Bárbara Plà and Iera Echebarria, Fiji's Ana Maria Roqica and England's Amy Wilson Hardy also do, the last two becoming the first from their country to hit the milestone.
The Black Ferns Sevens and two of their Pool A opponents – England and China – are no strangers to the atmosphere of a New Zealand Sevens, having played in the invitational Fast Four tournament during the HSBC New Zealand Sevens last year.
Squads freshened for round four
England, Cup quarter-finalists in Cape Town, welcome back Ellie Kildunne and Sydney Gregson for their first appearances of the 2020 series and will also hand a debut to Georgie Lingham, while former captain Roqica returns for the other side in the pool Fiji after missing their run to the quarter-finals in Dubai and Cape Town.
China are the invitational team this weekend and have spent the last four weeks in New Zealand. Chen Keyi is the most experienced member of a China squad featuring three of the five players who will make their series debuts in Hamilton in Tang Minglin, Zheng Wenyan and Xu Xiaoyan. While the squad may not feature many of those who played on the 2019 series, nine of them did help China qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by winning the Asian qualifier in Guangzhou last November.
While most teams went home after the Cape Town Sevens to enjoy time off with their families, @brasilrugby made the commitment to continue on to New Zealand and train ahead of the #HSBC7s in Hamilton.— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) January 23, 2020
Check out this @HSBC_Sport Sevens Uncovered with Brazil. pic.twitter.com/yyHp4gLbkq
Australia will face Brazil, Russia and USA in Pool B. While Australia have made a number of changes, their biggest rivals USA have only made two with Steph Rovetti returning after missing the last two rounds and Kayla Canett stepping up from 13th player in Cape Town with that position now filled by Cheta Emba.
Russia have also rung the changes with the absence of captain Alena Mikhaltsova the most significant, Kristina Seredina taking over the armband with her side's first victory in Hamilton to be their 100th in series history. Brazil have been in New Zealand since the last round in Cape Town and have made four changes to their squad and handed the captaincy to Isadora Cerullo.
For the fourth tournament in a row, Canada will field the most experienced squad with 266 events between 12 players, half of them having more than 25 tournaments to their name. Bianca Farella and captain Ghislaine Landry are both approaching personnel milestones in Hamilton with the only change from Cape Town being the inclusion of Youth Olympic Games bronze medallist Keyara Wardley, who turns 20 on Monday.
Their Pool C rivals France hand Jade Ulutule and Valentine Lothoz their first starts of the series, while Ireland will hope the return of captain Lucy Mulhall will see an upturn in fortunes after disappointing campaigns in Dubai and Cape Town. Spain complete the pool with Echebarria one of four players in the squad – including 13th player Paula Requena – who played in Las Leonas' test defeat to Scotland last Sunday before heading to New Zealand.
The action gets underway at 09:30 local time (GMT+13) at FMG Stadium on Saturday with teams to play two of their three pool matches, starting with France's Pool C encounter with Spain.