Samoans Have Found Self Belief
Eleven years ago the World Rugby Sevens Series got a shock at the not so very similar Stade Jean-Bouin– an inspired performance by the French team spearheaded by Vincent Clerc, meant they progressed into unchartered territories not only topping their pool and progressing into the Cup, they won it! Fast forward the clock and it seemed as through the romanticism of the French capital had prepared something else special. The semi-final line up read as Argentina v Samoa, France v Fiji. Could the French team, now with Virimi Vakatawa as the catalyst, do the unthinkable? Argentina overcame the most inexperienced New Zealand team to have played in the series (with just 108 events between them) in the quarter-finals before falling to a somewhat rejuvenated Samoan team. Take nothing away from the ever improving, patriotic and truly passionate Pumas, they are finding consistent form and are growing a very talented crop of sevens players that are becoming more than capable of challenging for Cup runs. The French team had a reciprocal relationship with the crowd, promising high quality skills, efficient interlinking play and a whole heap of passion and pride in exchange for a typically partisan, partially deafening wall of noise. Sadly for the home support, their sole inspiring Fijian flyer wasn’t a match for the 12 on the opposing team and the insatiable offloads kept coming and desperate French defenders ceased to be able to stop the deft touches and intelligent running lines of the Fijians. At times the big Fijian forwards seemed to have an extra sense of awareness that can find a supporting player at will, aided by arms as long as tree branches that creates a very difficult situation to stop.
What a highlight of the tournament it was hearing two incredibly passionate anthems showing giants (literally) of the game reduced to tears before they very much used all that patriotism to give absolutely everything they possess in what was an enthralling final. Samoa, ably lead by both coach Damian McGrath and top performer and captain Faalemiga Selesele, are capturing the confidence and self-belief that saw them intimidate the series’ teams over many years. Having lost 42-7 to Fiji in the pool the script was almost written at half-time as they were 26-7 down to a Fijian team that continued to showcase their simply memorising skills, style of play and wonderful athletes demonstrating feats that could re-write coaching manuals.
The power of a half-time talk rejuvenated the Samoans and Tila Mealoi got on the end of some slick wide passing and hard line offloads to stop the Fijian machine from motoring.
Les Miserables for England
Once again England will cite injuries and inexperience as being a reason for poor form, and that is clearly understandable, yet fans are calling to know more about why this poor run is consistent. Having been in a short slump with an England set-up previously, it can become very difficult to get over of the ever-increasing pressures which isn’t helped by always being third seeds in the group and facing teams such as South Africa and Australia in the pool stages.
Irrelevant of this, England must develop their belief in their attack. Defensively, they seldom make many errors (England were the third best defensively with 24 missed tackles – and top with an 82 per cent success rate) but they have lost the potency that was always synonymous with England. Good defence is a necessity in sevens, but what overrides that is having firepower in attack. Fiji, conversely – and to prove this point, were the worst tacklers in the tournament (missing 52), yet have scored 241 tries to England’s 136 this season. Granted, London will see a return of the serial attacking capabilities of Dan Norton, Tom Mitchell, Dan Bibby and Phil Burgess – which should be the catalyst of a big couple of months, and will end this tough year for the supporters and players of England.
The French find their ‘joie de vivre’
It has long been said the French game is suited to sevens. They coin the term ‘jouer’ meaning ‘to play’ and with that should hope to have a game that encompasses flair. The French crowd reacted to every act of class from Les Bleus – and with having someone like the razor sharp Virimi Vakatawa, there were not many moments of silence. They beat Argentina in a full boar third place play-off- and deserved a welcomed lap of applause as a preface to the final. Just how teams counter the right foot step and left hand fend of Vakatawa is a discussion that needs to happen, but until the plan is created – he is simply causing chaos. Terry Bouhraoua, Steeve Barry and Stephen Perez all stepped up in attack with arcing runs and abrasive carries for the home team, and as a result looked far more potent.
Portugal are Agents of Shield
Marvel if you like, but Portugal showed glimpses to perhaps keep them away from the looming relegation place by beating the under-performing Welsh team in a final that had end to end action throughout. The balance possessed by the wizard that is Nuno Guedes enabled the likes of the monstrous Aderito Esteves and effervescent Duarte Moreira to get in their stride and capitalise from the newly found restart prowess. While all eyes in London are looking on the top of the table – the battle at the bottom has huge consequences as Russia and Portugal seek to battle to avoid leaving the circuit.
London calling for Fiji
Tickets have all sold out– and Twickenham, the home of rugby will celebrate the curtain call for the best series of rugby sevens to date. We have witnessed another highly competitive tournament showing that the game now has so many potential winners and there is truly no easy game. London will stage another gruelling set of pools, but at the end of it there will be a series winner – and it is hard to look past that being Fiji.
Fiji are at times breathtaking, often mesmerising, and as we saw often this weekend the highlight of the series. Taking another look at the statistics in their game, it perhaps shows why they are so good. Looking at the physical make up of the Fijians, they are across the board very tall, powerful and have an ability to win almost every collision. Throw in some fleet footed playmakers and pace throughout the whole squad and it is no wonder that the tactics employed by Ben Ryan work. They finished the tournament with an impressive ratio of 0.8 rucks to tries. This simply means that they seldom ever get tackled with the ball, keeping it alive by an offloading record that would be the envy of the Harlem Globetrotters. Whoever may take the field in the final at Twickenham on Sunday evening, the whole event will be a precession of the quality we have seen on the World Rugby Sevens Series before eyes very much turn to Rio and the Olympic Games via the repecharge tournament in Monaco.
The Samoa 7s team perform their traditional dance after winning the Paris tournament.