Rugby: No writing off Fiji, All Blacks

Joeli Lutumailagi (right) of Fiji tries to avoid a tackle from New Zealand's Vilimoni Koroi during the USA leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series. Fiji went on to reach the Cup final in Las Vegas, where they lost to South Africa.
Joeli Lutumailagi (right) of Fiji tries to avoid a tackle from New Zealand's Vilimoni Koroi during the USA leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series. Fiji went on to reach the Cup final in Las Vegas, where they lost to South Africa.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Sevens series leaders remain wary of rugby powerhouses with four legs remaining

Coaching changes for Olympic gold medallists Fiji and 12-time World Rugby Sevens Series champions New Zealand have resulted in some below-par performances this season.

Still, their rivals have downplayed talk of their demises as rugby sevens heavyweights.

With six Cup wins between them, table toppers South Africa (126 points) and second-placed England (103) have collected all the major trophies so far this campaign, with four legs of the World Rugby Sevens Series remaining.

After their 2015 and 2016 triumphs, Fiji's hopes of a hat-trick of Series titles are looking slim. They have made three Cup finals this term and are third with 100 points. However, they have lacked the same cutting edge and hunger since the departure of former coach Ben Ryan after their momentous gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The All Blacks Sevens are without a Cup final appearance this season. They are fourth with 84 points as they adjust to life after legendary coach Gordon Tietjens. The 61-year-old stepped down after the Rio Games following two decades at the helm. Kiwi Scott Waldrom is the interim head coach until Clark Laidlaw takes over in June.

Nevertheless, England coach Simon Amor stressed that this is not a two-horse race between them and South Africa. The teams are playing in Hong Kong this weekend, before travelling to Singapore next week. The Series then moves to Paris next month before concluding in London on May 21.

Speaking to The Straits Times in a phone interview from Hong Kong, Amor said: "Both Fiji and New Zealand have world-class players and games against them are always going to be close. There are a lot of points to play for and they're still huge contenders."

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  • Points difference between World Rugby Sevens Series leaders South Africa (126) and New Zealand (84) in fourth. Cup winners earn 22 points. Runners-up get 19 points while third is worth 17 points.

The last team other than New Zealand or Fiji that were crowned Series champions were Samoa in 2010.

The addition of Kiwi duo Regan Ware and Joe Ravouvou and Fijian pair Isake Katonibau and Jasa Veremalua will improve their respective teams for the Hong Kong leg.

England captain Tom Mitchell, who is on 99 career tries, is looking forward to reaching a personal milestone at the Hong Kong Stadium but is wary of the threat posed by the Oceania teams. New Zealand and Fiji have won the past six Hong Kong editions and Mitchell said the tournament historically brings out the best in both sides.

He added: "Our last tournament was a month back, so they've had a lot of time to prepare and that can be very important when the team is adjusting to new personnel. Don't forget, these are still teams with big pedigree. You can't write them off."

Even the near-unbeatable South Africans, who have won all six of their games against the Fijians and All Blacks this season with a combined scoreline of 156-50, are remaining cautious.

Blitzboks captain Philip Snyman said: "Their pride has been hurt which makes them ever more dangerous. We will not take any game lightly.

"This is a new week, a new tournament. There are still four rounds left and anything can happen."

•Tickets to the Singapore Sevens can be purchased at singapore7s.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2017, with the headline 'No writing off Fiji, All Blacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe