No easy ride at world sevens series

The Fijians may be Olympic champions and two-time winners of the World Rugby Sevens Series but newly-appointed Japan coach and former All Black Damian Karauna does not expect the Pacific Islanders to run away with this year's title.

Fiji lost their star coach Ben Ryan, who has since joined the Welsh Rugby Union as a consultant, and are adjusting to life under new coach Gareth Baber.

Furthermore, perennial contenders England and South Africa, silver and bronze medallists at the Rio Olympics respectively, have raised their game.

The South Africans beat Fiji in the final of the 2016-17 opening stop in Dubai last month and England eliminated Fiji in the quarter-finals a week later en route to winning the Cape Town leg.

Using the example of Japan, who finished fourth at the Rio Games, and Kenya, who won the 2016 Singapore Sevens, Karauna told The Straits Times he expects the competition to be fierce this term with outsiders Scotland and the United States also coming to the fore.

The 41-year-old, who won six World Series championships with New Zealand (four as a player and two as assistant coach), added: "Scotland are delivering strong, consistent performances, and with a wealth of experience now, will push the top four throughout the year.

"USA for me is the dark horse. Such pace and size will be hard to stop once they start firing."

The World Series resumes this weekend in Wellington before moving on to Sydney next weekend. South Africa lead the standings with 41 points, followed by England (39) and Fiji (32).

Record winners New Zealand, with 12 championships, are fifth (27) and are also experiencing a season of change themselves. This is the first campaign in 22 years that legendary coach Gordan Tietjens is not at the helm.

Tietjens, or Titch as he is known, stepped down after Rio and is now in charge of Samoa, who won the World Series in 2010 but have since struggled to reach similar heights.

Karauna noted his former mentor was the perfect man to awaken the sleeping giants. He said: "New Zealand's loss will be Samoa's gain. Such a wealth of knowledge will be hard to replace.

"Samoa definitely have the talent Titch is used to working with. Don't be surprised when Samoa start winning consistently and becoming the force they once were."

Both Japan and Hong Kong are among the 16 teams that will compete at the Singapore Sevens on April 15-16 at the National Stadium. It is the eighth leg of the 10-stop World Series.

Welshman Jevon Groves, who replaced compatriot Baber as Hong Kong's head coach, believes the Fijians are still favourites and will rebound from their early-season wobbles.

He said: "Gareth's working hard on their fitness so they will be able to play at a higher intensity for longer periods in the next tournaments."

•Tickets to Singapore Sevens can purchased online at singapore7s.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'No easy ride at world sevens series'. Print Edition | Subscribe