Brisbane 7s race wide open
January 31, 2002

The IRB World Sevens Series resumes on Saturday in Brisbane, Australia, with no outright favourites for the crown but plenty of contenders.

New Zealand, Australia and Fiji, look to be a shade ahead of the pack, but South Africa and Argentina have edged closer and closer over the past 12 months. And the inclusion of Pacific teams Papua New Guinea, Tonga and the Cook Islands promises to add plenty of extra flair and colour to the proceedings.

Table leaders New Zealand have suffered the loss of skipper Eric Rush (shoulder injury), halfback Amasio Raoma (hamstring), and playmaker Orene Ai'i (Super 12 call up from the Crusaders). And following their semi-final defeat to Fiji in Mar del Plata, a big effort will be needed if they are to maintain their status as the world¹s best.

Returning to the sevens fold for the Kiwis will be New Zealand A winger Justin Wilson and old hand Rua Tipoki, while the ever-present Damian
Karauna, Jared Going and stand-in captain Craig de Goldi add stability.

Another notable inclusion is King's College (Auckland) student Anthony Koonwaiyou, who returned home early from the New Zealand Schools tour of Europe.

But Gordon Tietjens' men have a tough pool with Samoa, France and Japan.

The Samoans have improved vastly since organising their own domestic sevens series last August, and were desperately unlucky not to beat New Zealand in the Durban 7's final.

Samao, lying fifth in the IRB table with 28 points, have been bolstered with the return of Faapito Matagitau, the veteran forward who has recovered from the shoulder injury that caused him to miss the South American tournaments.

"We really missed his defence and the work he does in the forwards, so we are glad to have him back," coach Romeo Ah Chong said.

But the Samoans have their work cut out: if they fail to beat New Zealand in Pool A, they may face in the quarter-finals their nemesis Fiji, who beat them 26-0 in both Chile and Argentina and are undefeated against there island neighbours since 1993.

Fiji, who won the last time the IRB circuit came to Brisbane, play in Pool B with Argentina, Cook Islands and China.

The Fiji camp is quietly confident that they can return to their former glory of being the world¹s best team in the abbreviated code having triumphed in Mar del Plata for their first series win since April 2000.

They make two changes from the squad that won in Argentina with strapping winger Vereniki Waqa replacing the suspended Marika Vunibaka and prison warden Vilimoni Sivo coming in for Dale Kavici.

Fiji are again led by the magician Waisale Serevi, who scored a sublime try here two years ago in injury time to snatch a dramatic victory over hosts Australia.

The Aussies, playing in Pool C with Wales, the USA and Papua New Guinea, give their first taste of action to League converts Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers. Julian Gardner's team also sees the return of sevens stalwarts Cameron Pither, Julian Huxley and Ed Carter.

"I just can't wait for kick-off on Saturday," Rogers said. "It is always a real honour to wear the green and gold for your country, especially in front of a home crowd.

"Sevens is such a fast game, with plenty of open space to stretch your legs. It's also unforgiving in defence so I will really have to be on top of my game."

While Wales and the USA will find it tough to handle the revamped host team, the mercurial Paua New Guineans cannot be underestimated. Similar to the Fijians in their view of the sport, PNG have the talent to cause an upset but need to keep cool heads at crucial times.

The USA team had the privilege of the USA Ambassador to Australia coming to the hotel to wish them luck and joining them on their bus to training.

South Africa head Pool D with famed winger Chester Williams (pictured) as head coach. The Springbok Sevens, who reached the final in Mar del Plata where they were undone by the Fijians, must contend with an improving England outfit, Canada and Tonga.

Ticket sales for Ballymore have been booming, as teams in the IRB series constantly improve, upsets have become more and more common until they cease to be real upsets. Come Sunday, the most composed team will win.

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