Former World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, Jerry Tuwai, will make his seasonal debut on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series after being named in Ben Gollings’ Fiji squad for this weekend’s tournament in Hamilton.
The double Olympic gold medallist has missed the last five tournaments on the Series – in London and Toulouse at the end of last season due to illness – and the first three rounds of the 2023 campaign due to injury.
Tuwai, 33, played at the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens, where Fiji won gold, but has missed by Fiji on the Series.
Fiji, winners in Hamilton in 2018 and 2019, began the 2023 Series with a runners-up finish in Hong Kong but fell flat in Dubai and Cape Town.
Failing to medal in the last two rounds has left them in fifth place, seven points behind Samoa, who they meet in the pool stages of a World Series tournament for the first time since this tournament was last staged in Hamilton three years ago. France and Kenya are also in Pool A.
Other notable names in the Fiji squad include Josua Vakurinabili, Sevuloni Mocenacagi and Waisea Nacuqu.
After six long years of waiting, Manu Samoa Sevens won their first Series Cup title in Cape Town in December and, unsurprisingly, head coach Muliagatele Brian Lima has kept faith with the same squad, including this season’s joint-top try-scorer Vaa Apelu Maliko.
Manu Samoa are currently tied with South Africa at the top of the men’s standings, on 47 points.
Playmaker Davids back for Blitzboks
South Africa welcome back playmaker Selvyn Davids missed the last two rounds but is back for his 29th Series tournament as the Blitzboks attempt to win in New Zealand for the first since they were victorious in Wellington in 2017.
Jaiden Baron makes his Series debut for the joint leaders who line up in Pool D with Argentina, Spain and Canada.
South Africa will be without a few key names with their most-capped player Branco du Preez having retired from international sevens after the Cape Town round, while Muller du Plessis and JC Pretorius having left the programme to focus on 15s.
With three tough games scheduled, assistant coach Philip Snyman is under no illusions as to the enormity of the task ahead.
“Everyone knows there are no easy games anymore,” he said.
“Like we had in Cape Town last month, we again have Canada first up and there it took us six minutes to score our first try, so we know it’s not going to be easy. But I think if we hold onto our ball and defend the way we can, we have enough firepower to get over the line.
“Spain also showed in their opening match in Cape Town, where they beat New Zealand, that they have something to prove under their new coach. Their playing style is a little bit different, and we need to adapt to that as quickly as possible.
“But we’re taking things game by game. We want to lay a foundation against Canada and build on that.”
New Zealand are defending champions in both the men’s and women’s competitions and will be looking forward to putting their best foot forward in the last World Series tournament hosted in the country before next season’s change of format.
Both New Zealand teams are desperate for a show-stopping finish, to not only reward their fans by successfully defending their titles from 2020, but to remain amongst the pacesetters for their respective overall Series titles.
The Black Ferns Sevens are currently joint-top with Australia, on 38 points, while the men are hot on the heels of Samoa and South Africa, in third place and only three points behind.
A gold medal has eluded New Zealand’s men in the first three rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023, in Hong Kong, Dubai and Cape Town, where they won silver, and head coach Clark Laidlaw would love to put that right this weekend.
All Blacks Sevens want to sign off in style
“This year’s tournament is extra special, with it being the last big dance in front of a boisterous home crowd,” he said.
"Playing at home, you can't beat it. The atmosphere, and the support from our fans and whānau (extended family), is indescribable. It is our turn now to take the field and show our appreciation for their support this weekend, but also thank them for their support for the past 22 years.
"This week we have prepared with real energy, and the players are eager to take the field and play to their potential with the crowd behind us, we look forward to embracing that,” added Laidlaw.
New Zealand are in Pool B along with Great Britain, Australia and invitation side Tonga.
The vastly-experienced duo, Scott Curry and Tim Mikkelson, are both unavailable but with 310 tournaments between them, New Zealand’s squad have played more tournaments than any of the competing teams except Argentina (329).
Los Pumas Sevens are currently well off the pace in eighth and need a strong second half to the season if they are going to claim one of the four automatic Olympic qualification spots fpr Paris 2024.
Gastón Revol will play in his 92nd World Series tournament – one behind the record held by England’s James Rodwell – and is poised to become only the second player from his country, after coach Santiago Gómez Cora, to reach 1,000 points. Revol is currently 25 short of the magical milestone achieved by only 25 players in Series history
Meanwhile, the All Blacks Sevens have even more incentive to finish the HSBC New Zealand Sevens on top as it will be Regan Ware and Joe Webber’s 50th international tournament – incorporating other tournaments as well as the World Series – in the black jersey. New Zealand also possess this season’s top points-scorer in Akuila Rokolisoa, who is the only player to pass the century mark (127).
For France, Jonathan Laugel will extend his record for most Series tournaments for Les Bleus to 82 – and that’s before he has even reached his 30th birthday.
Tokyo Olympians Alex Davis and Ethan Waddleton are included for the first time this season for Great Britain, while Tom Williams and Will Homer also return from injury.
Coming off the back of December’s double-header in Dubai and Cape Town, Ireland currently sit ninth in the Series standings but are boosted by the return of World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year 2022 and last season’s top try-scorer, Terry Kennedy, to the squad for Hamilton.
USA have improved with every tournament and will look to continue that trend in order to maintain their place in the top four.
The Men's Sevens Eagles head into 2023, and pool games against Ireland, Uruguay and Japan, fresh off a bronze medal finish in Cape Town. Once again, they be led by captain Kevon Williams.
Veteran player and 2020 Olympian Maceo Brown joins the squad in Hamilton for his first Series appearance this season.
“We are motivated to continue moving forward as a group and impose our attacking DNA and defensive intensity,” said coach Mike Friday.
Champions refreshed and raring to go
Defending Series champions Australia have gone the other way to the USA. They began their defence on a high with the gold medal in Hong Kong but fell flat in Dubai and then Cape Town.
Maurice Longbottom and speedster James Turner make a welcome return from injury as they look to put the disappointment of the last two rounds behind them.
Australia were losing Cup quarter-finalists in Dubai and failed to make it out of their pool in the last round.
Similar to the Samoa-Fiji encounter, their meeting with New Zealand will be one to saviour.
“The Christmas break came at a great time for us, as we were really fatigued after 12 months of tournaments and a few busted bodies,” said coach John Manenti.
“We’ve been really pleased by the lead up to Hamilton and we’re excited by the opportunity to play New Zealand at home.
Duo back to boost Australia women
To date, Australia’s women have made a much better fist of defending the title they won last year than their male counterparts.
After kicking off with a win in Dubai, they came second in Cape Town to New Zealand, their rivals at the top of the standings.
Coach Tim Walsh has a full contingent of players available for selection as they look to rebound following Cape Town, starting off with games against France, Canada and Japan in Pool B.
Walsh has picked the same squad that claimed the Dubai title, welcoming Lily Dick and Tia Hinds back from injury.
That means Sharni Williams will be the joint-most experienced player at the tournament in terms of Series events (42) along with Canada’s Bianca Farella. A victory on Sunday would be a fine way for Madison Ashby to celebrate her 22nd birthday.
"We’re expecting our competition to step up, as we’ve found that teams are often just finding their feet in the first two rounds, and only really find their rhythm in the ensuing tournaments,” said Walsh.
“The team’s preparations have been very pleasing thus far – the playing group has knuckled down and been conscious of making performance-based decisions.
“The group is bubbling with excitement with Sydney Sevens around the corner, so they’re keen to get on the field in Hamilton.”
New Zealand will be tough to beat with a raft of experienced players transitioning back to sevens from 15s.
Rugby World Cup 2021 champions, Sarah Hirini, Stacey Fluhler, Portia Woodman-Wickliffe and Teresa Fitzpatrick return to the sevens format after enjoying an extended break from rugby following their 15s triumph against England. Hirini captains the side in her 41st Series tournament.
New Zealand are in Pool A with Great Britain, Fiji and invitation side Papua New Guinea.
Doyle returns for dangerous USA
Consecutive bronze medals place USA third in the overall standings. With a collective total of 252 tournament appearances, the Women’s Sevens Eagles are the second most experienced squad in Hamilton behind the host nation.
Head coach Emilie Bydwell has kept together the core group of players that appeared in Dubai and Cape Town.
Lauren Doyle returns to the pitch after injury, in her now 10th HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, joining Naya Tapper as co-captain in Hamilton.
USA are paired with Ireland, Brazil and Spain in Pool C.
“While we are happy with the outcome of the first two tournaments, we know that has put us in a position where teams are gunning for us and we need to be prepared to meet what’s coming,” said Bydwell.
“We are confident in what our potential is as a group and how we want to play, so our goal continues to be bringing that to life and to be five per cent better across every aspect of the game each tournament. Our ability to remain present and take every tournament one game at a time continues to be critical to our success.”
Lying in fourth, France head to Hamilton in determined mood.
“In this tournament, we want to get the best of ourselves. We have very fixed goals, ambitions and objectives," said France captain Carla Neisen.
France have the youngest player in the tournament in 18-year-old Lilou Graciet, who turns 19 a few weeks after New Zealand’s Jorja Miller.
For the record, Papua New Guinea will field the oldest player – 41-year-old Fatima Rama, who also played in the Palais’ last appearance on the Series in Sydney in February 2019.
England’s Georgie Lingham, who has two Series tournaments behind her, is set to make her Great Britain debut in Hamilton.