Opportunity abounds for the England Men’s Sevens team heading into the New Year – the chance not only of a maiden World Sevens Series crown but also hope of a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The countdown to Tokyo begins when the first of ten Sevens Series rounds kicks off in Dubai next week, with England in the hunt for a first triumph on the circuit after finishing runners-up four times.
Last season was a story of injury derailing head coach Simon Amor’s hopes for success, as Fiji outfought USA in the showdown for top spot while England were left to settle for fifth.
Amor’s England squad for the 2019-20 Series boasts four players who claimed silver medals with Team GB in Rio almost four years ago. And an upgrade to gold in Japan next summer tops the former London Scottish coach’s list of priorities over World Series glory.
“Looking to the season ahead, it’s a big one with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at the end,” Amor said. “With six combined competitions with the women, it will be an exciting year.
“On the back of a tough 2018-19 campaign, we have a number of players rehabbing injuries at the moment.
“This is arguably the most talented squad I’ve ever had with England sevens which is incredibly exciting for the year ahead.
England: Dan Bibby, Tom Bowen, Phil Burgess (C), Richard de Carpentier, Mike Ellery, Tom Emery, Harry Glover, Ben Harris, Charlton Kerr, Ollie Lindsay-Hague, Will Muir, Dan Norton, Ethan Waddleton
“We’ll have some great players out there. However, with the lack of seven-v-seven training we’ve been able to do throughout pre-season due to the number of players coming back from injury, it’s unlikely we’ll be at our best.
“We know how big a challenge the World Series will be and our focus this year will be on getting our experienced and talented squad peaking at the end of a long season to not only earn selection for Team GB but give Team GB the best chance of becoming Olympic champions.”
England’s wait for an event win on the circuit dates back to 2017 when they proved to be top dog in Vancouver. But 25 events have since come and gone without the team sending champagne corks flying.
Seasoned professional Tom Mitchell will serve as captain after missing time last season along with Dan Bibby, while Will Muir and Harry Glover have both carved out significant roles since being introduced to the team for this Olympic cycle.
All-time Sevens leading try-scorer Dan Norton, 31, who surpassed 300 tries in Hong Kong last April, will again be Amor’s wing man in his testimonial season in the game’s shorter format.
Change is coming to this year’s circuit with Ireland supplanting Japan to become a core team on the circuit for the first time, joining the round table alongside Sevens heavyweight Fiji, USA, New Zealand and South Africa.
Coached by former Australia Sevens general manager, Anthony Eddy, Ireland have been pooled with USA, Australia and Scotland for their debut in Dubai.
And before jetting off to the UAE on Friday, Eddy vowed his team were eager to repay the investment in the Sevens programme by the IRFU with Italy the only Six Nations team now missing on the circuit.
“The players have been looking forward to this for a long time and are delighted to be recognised as a core team on the World Series,” Eddy said.
“They will be very keen to put in a performance that justifies all the hard work they have done to reach this point.
“We are well aware of the level of competition on the World Series and we also recognise we have to lift our performance on a consistent basis.
“There are no easy games at this level so we have to be well prepared.”
South Africa pose a threat to England’s hopes of a strong start to the Series after falling by the wayside last season following back-to-back crowns under coach Neil Powell.
The Blitzboks look ready to compete again for the title despite the loss of veteran captains Kyle Brown and Philip Snyman, who announced their retirements this summer.
Powell commented: “We don’t look at anyone to fill their boots but what we are hoping is that there will be players that make the step up in their own unique way. I think there are a lot of players that have done that already in our last season.”
Reigning Dubai champions New Zealand remain blessed with experience, with co-captains Tim Mikkelson and Tom Curry ever-present in the team along with Job Webber and Sam Dickson.
Coach Clark Laidlaw believes he has the pieces to mount a serious challenge to Fiji this year following an improved 2018-19, as the All Blacks showed signs of the rugby which made them a force under legendary coach Sir Gordon Tietjens.
But, as ever, World Series and Olympic title holders Fiji are the team to beat.
Fiji’s five event wins last time around proved insurmountable for near rivals USA, but they are yet to win in Dubai since 2015.
They boast reigning World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year Jerry Tuwai amongst their squad.
USA Women head to Dubai as early season pace-setters after their triumph in the opening leg in Glendale.
They beat Australia 26-7 in the final to win on home soil for the first time in the World Series.
The USA, who had been defeated by France on day one, become the third team, after Australia and New Zealand, to win consecutive titles in the Series, having won in Biarritz in the final event of the 2019 event.
USA had earlier pulled off a stunning result in the semi-final, eliminating New Zealand 19-17 to gain revenge for the defeat in the final at last season’s Glendale event.
New Zealand ended up with the bronze medal, beating France 31-14. Spain ultimately claimed fifth, beating Russia 24-19 in the semi-final before grinding out a 12-7 win against Canada in the play-off, Olivia Fresneda and Eva Aguirre scoring second half tries to overturn a deficit.
England took ninth place at Infinity Park, putting in a much improved performance from their 21-14 pool stage victory over Japan, to win 36-14 against the same opponents.
England had earlier defeated Brazil 34-14. Invitational team Japan battled hard to beat Fiji in the ninth-place semi-final, finding themselves 19-14 down towards the end.
Chiharu Nakamura dotted down with seconds remaining to send Japan through.
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