We have become used to seeing New Zealand top the annual Sevens World Series, for they have finished winners of 12 of the 15 tournaments but we may shortly be in for a change.
Although they are once again defending champions, it has become apparent that they are not quite the force they once were and are now not the leaders in physicality, pace, skill or intelligence of play. Marvellous record that he boasts, coach Gordon Tietjens is no longer ahead of the field and some of his strategies are, if not obsolete, lacking in creativity or even intelligence.
Instead of looking for space or attempting to put players into gaps, the general objective seems to be to make contact and re-cycle the ball repetitively until the defence loses its shape. Against the South Africans in particular, this is no longer working, as the Blitzbokke are the current masters of the breakdown, their exceptional commitment and intensity driving away and turning over not just the New Zealanders but all teams. It is probably true that they are being allowed to get away with murder at the breakdowns but until referees respond they will continue to dominate.
Despite being neither the biggest nor the strongest team, SA are the most physical and they have greater depth in place than any side. On attack, the Fijians still lead the way with their skills, pace and power but this is not matched by defence, discipline, fitness or commitment. Under a new coach, Australia is at last making progress and may well become a threat, particularly if they can find more pace. Samoa have fallen away badly and do not possess a game breaker. They are short on speed and have no cohesive game plan. England are the best of the rest but after that the standard declines rapidly.
On paper, the South Africans should win this year’s series but as we move towards 2016 and the Olympic Games, everything will change, as some, if not all teams will turn to some of their 15 man rugby stars. Imagine a NZ Sevens ‘pack’ of Dane Coles, Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick backed by Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Sonny-Bill Williams and Julian Savea with Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Cane on the bench. It is an exciting prospect, if a little unfair to those who train and play in the Sevens game all season.