Stage set for 7s finale
May 27, 2003

What a climax awaits the IRB Sevens season as we approach the final two events in IRB Sevens Cardiff (31st-1st June) & London 6/7th June, with New Zealand still not guaranteed the 'World Champions' tag.

They do remain favourites by virtue of the fact that they are 16 points clear of the field, but with 40 tournament points on offer from the last two events of the season it is still possible for England or Fiji to overhaul them.

Once again this season crowds have been roundly thrilled by rugby brilliance, and never more so than in the two most recent Wellington and Hong Kong tournaments. New Zealand finally won their 'home town' event but only by the narrowest of margins, edging out Samoa by four points in the quarter-final, Fiji by just two in the semis before winning the final against England in a titanic struggle in which the lead changed hands five times.

In Hong Kong it was no less exciting, with England taking the title after knock-out victories over Australia, Fiji and finally New Zealand by a margin of no more than one try.

Raising the standard

Just as important though has been the improved skills and competitiveness of other countries, lifting the overall quality of the IRB Sevens to new heights. Already we have seen Kenya beat Australia, the Cook Islands win against Wales, Japan get to within two points of England, Samoa victorious over New Zealand and Canada over Scotland, while France, Argentina, Samoa and Tonga are consistently competitive against the top seeds.

Russia, Namibia, Korea, and China are also learning fast and even newcomers Zambia showed terrific potential on their debut. The truly one-sided affairs are now few and far between.

We have also seen the emergence of individual talent from these sides: Canada's playmaker Marco di Girolamo has consistently impressed, Kenya's Oscar Osuia is a real crowd-pleaser, Argentina's Lucio Lopez Fleming and Pablo Gomez Cora have proved more than a handful and China's He Zhong Liang and Russia's Andrei Kouzin have each been a revelation as has Namibia's Ronaldo Pedro.

New Zealand on a mission

For now though the spotlight remains focused on the world's best, and one statistic looks persuasive: New Zealand have won every Emirate-sponsored IRB London and Cardiff Sevens ever played. No doubt still smarting from losing to England 17-22 in that epic Hong Kong final, New Zealand must start as favourites. Kinikinilau, Valence, Tenana, de Goldi, Walker and Ioasa have all 'been there' time and again around the world, with teenager Liam Messam a superb new recruit this season, fresh out of school rugby and having played in the under 19 World Championship.

Fiji for their part no longer count 'the legend' Waisale Serevi among their fold, and the player closest to filling his boots, Sireli Bobo, has been whisked away to Super 12 rugby.

Roko, Naiteqe, Davu and Bolavucu remain, although since winning the South African tournament, and losing the Brisbane final, the team has been under pressure from home and the natural confidence and exuberance has been missing slightly. Still never to be counted out at this form of the game though.

The team that has won two of the last three events should be in the reckoning here, and they have the added benefit of playing 'at home'. England have made enormous strides since losing in the quarter-finals of each of this season's two opening tournaments.

Winners twice and runners-up once in the last three events says it all, although the squad is very young. Five are new to the sevens circuit this season, and although Ben Gollings and Pat Sanderson return to the action, Henry Paul and Richard Haughton are absent, both key contributors this season, especially play-maker Paul.

Outsiders looking for an upset

Do not rule out South Africa, Australia and Samoa. Australia ring the changes for these two Emirates-sponsored tournaments, with the return of three Queensland Reds with sevens experience Scott Barton, Michael Tabrett and Tom McVerry, plus three new faces in Ryan McGoldrick, Ben Martin and Cameron Northcote.

By contrast South Africa stick with a seasoned squad, and if they can collectively match the recent performances of Marius Schoeman, Jaco Pretorius and Conrad Jantjies there is every reason to believe that they could certainly match their London final performance of last year. They are my tip for a big upset over one or more of the top three.

As for Samoa the usual applies: Anything is possible. There's no doubting the talent - although they will miss big Ron Fanuatanu - with Elisara, Matagitau and Toleafoa forming a powerful nucleus.

There's never a dull day in Sevens rugby, and with the happy arrival of Portugal, Spain and Gerorgia for these final two events of the 2002/2003 season - unknown quantities straight in at the deep end - who knows what lies in store? Great rugby entertainment - that's for sure!

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