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Rugby: Winds of change in sevens

The England team celebrates the winning try against Australia during the fifth place match on day three of the USA Sevens Rugby tournament, part of the World Rugby Sevens Series, on March 5, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The England team celebrates the winning try against Australia during the fifth place match on day three of the USA Sevens Rugby tournament, part of the World Rugby Sevens Series, on March 5, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. PHOTO: AFP

England are looking to make up ground on leaders South Africa, ahead of S'pore stop

Everything about the landscape of rugby sevens has changed since England coach Simon Amor's playing days more than a decade ago.

For one, teams like England never experienced much fanfare in Singapore, especially nothing like the 50 kids who mobbed their players for autographs and wefies after a training session earlier this week.

The sport's inclusion at the Rio Olympics, where Britain won silver, has helped alter attitudes and win over new fans, said Amor.

Change has also come at the expense of the once all-conquering New Zealand. Twelve-time champions All Blacks Sevens won the first six World Rugby Sevens Series, but are no longer dominant. Olympic champions Fiji have won the past two editions while South Africa, after four Cup wins this season, are the leaders on 145 points, ahead of Fiji (122) and England (113).

Amor said: "Back then there were only a handful of teams that were at the top, but now it's right across the board. It's so competitive from top to bottom."

Even last year's Singapore Sevens, which returned after a nine-year absence, saw Kenya upset the odds to beat Fiji in the final.

It has also been a season of transition for several top sides, with New Zealand and Fiji struggling to adapt to new coaching personnel after the departures of the highly successful Gordon Tietjens and Ben Ryan respectively. The Kenyans have also welcomed seven new players since their historic win at the National Stadium.

  • PICK OF THE FIXTURES

  • 11.22am: Australia v Samoa

    11.44am: England v France

    12.52pm: Fiji v Hong Kong

    1.14pm: New Zealand v Scotland

    2.22pm: Australia v Kenya

    2.44pm: England v Japan

    3.06pm: South Africa v France

    4.34pm: USA v Scotland

    4.56pm: SEA 7s men's and women's finals

    6.18pm: Australia v Argentina

    7.02pm: South Africa v England

    8.06pm: Fiji v Canada

    8.50pm: USA v New Zealand

This has worked in South Africa's favour, one of the "few settled sides", said their coach Neil Powell, seeking to deliver the Blitzboks' first championship since 2009.

But with Fiji victorious in Hong Kong last week - thrashing the South Africans in the final - he expected the current status quo to be challenged again as Fiji and New Zealand are "starting to find their feet and play good rugby".

England winger Dan Norton knows a thing or two about taking time to flourish. Once dismissed as too lightweight for the 15-a-side format, he has found his home in sevens since his debut in 2009.

The 29-year-old overtook Kenya's Collins Injera as the Series all-time try scorer last week and will look to add to his 246 tries today against Group B rivals South Africa, France and Japan.

He said: "I never actually thought I'd ever be in this position when I first started playing rugby, so it's an amazing feeling."

For his coach, nothing would feel better than rewriting history. The 37-year-old Amor was part of England team who lost to Fiji in the 2006 Singapore Sevens final.

England have reached three Cup finals this term, winning in Cape Town and Vancouver, but Amor stressed that no one in an England jersey was getting ahead of themselves. He said: "Every single time you go out to a tournament and you're playing for your country, you want to do your best, and you want to win.

"But first and foremost it's about starting our first game here against a very good France team, playing our very best and building from there. It's a tough first game so all our focus is on that one."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'Winds of change in sevens'. Print Edition | Subscribe