We caught up with World Rugby TV commentators Melodie Robinson and Willie Los'e to get their thoughts ahead of the inaugural HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens, the fourth round of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series.
We've reached the halfway point of the 2016-17 series so what sticks out for you from Dubai, Sydney and Las Vegas?
Willie Los'e: For me personally it has been the resurgence of New Zealand. I think that under a new coach they have really found a way to get back in the winning circle. They are playing a brand of sevens that took them to the top and kept them there for a long time, I they were overtaken last year and at the Olympic Games. Something else that has stood out for me is just how the other teams have closed that gap again. We keep talking about the margins and how close it is getting and that is one thing for me, the teams in the middle or bottom of the standings still have the skill set and the ability to upset some of the big guns and the quicker they can develop and close that gap further the better it is going to be.
Melodie Robinson: For me it was a big surprise that Australia have been overtaken by New Zealand because they have pretty much the same players, the same formula, the same coach. Yet New Zealand have come in with their new coach and new approach of spreading the ball and they have totally dominated them. That has been a surprise. I think the patterns that I am seeing out there, the way the teams are playing, everybody has simplified what they are doing so they are playing wide games and their skill set has stepped up, even in the last six months.
One of the things I have loved has been the resurgence of the United States. Richie Walker has full control of the team, he didn’t have enough time with them ahead of the Olympics but now he has selected these new players and looked at what some of the other sides have done with their big power players on the edge. Naya Tapper has been incredible, 22 years old, hardly played any rugby and she has just really stood out and been a powerhouse for them. I’m loving what the United States are doing and also the consistency of Canada, every tournament they are competitive and having that win in Australia ... they are the only nation that has won men’s and women’s rounds on the series this year.
England have failed to reach the Cup quarter-finals for the last two rounds, but they've recalled a couple of big names so will they bounce back?
Melodie: This is a far stronger side than we have seen all season and just the injection of those three very experienced players is going to have a massive impact I believe. Katy Mclean is going to come in and just organise them. Their captain Abbie Brown has just needed a little bit of support underneath and she is going to get it, while Amy Wilson-Hardy is an absolute star. They are just an example of a team that is trying to balance defending a 15s World Cup title with what they are doing in the sevens, they looked to develop a few new players but they took one or two too many out of the sevens team. This is a pool of death, though, for them and Pool C is the one I am going to be watching with interest ... Canada, USA and England – and Spain can upset anyone on their day. Who knows who is going to win that one, it’s going to be crazy.
Fiji have finished fifth at every round this season, what is it going to take for them to reach that first Cup semi-final?
Willie: I don’t think they are very far away at all. I think a lot of credit has to go to a guy who isn’t there now in Chris Cracknell. Iliesa Tanivula is a fantastic coach, but the groundwork that was laid by Cracknell … it’s a bit like the Ben Ryan story. I think he gave them a lot of belief, he made sure that their training sessions meant they were fitter than they had ever been. It’s about beating a team once and then all of a sudden that changes the mindset because until you actually achieve it, you keep asking questions as to why can’t we do this. They aren’t far away and if it doesn’t happen here, that it will happen in Langford or Clermont-Ferrand.
Melodie: They are unique in how they play, they constantly play a high-risk reward style with that offload game which is so entertaining. Sometimes it doesn’t come off but when it does no team can beat them and that is what I love about them, that Fijian style that is so completely different to every other team.
Japan surely will come into their home tournament on a high after winning the Hong Kong qualifier to secure core team status for next season?
Willie: I was lucky enough to be in Hong Kong when they did qualify and they played a brand of rugby over the two days that was head and shoulders above everybody else. They really did express themselves, they have got a couple of Fijian forwards that by the time you get their name out somebody has scored because if their names were on Scrabble you’d get about 1,000 points! They have got the power players up front in Raichierumiyo Bativakalolo and Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave and they have brought a base which is what Japan needs, they are always going to get beaten at the contact area and that has been an area they have tried to work on. Their body positions have got better but the breakdown is such an important part in sevens and they get beaten there. There is no doubt though that they have the finishers and the thing I love about Japan, like Fiji, is that they are playing a brand of sevens that suits them. It is a quick game, one of changing angles, one of finding mis-matches and it is also one of using the whole field, spreading the ball, and they are going to run a few teams around this weekend. If any of the teams, especially towards the bottom of the table underestimate them they will so at their peril.
What are your thoughts on Pool A with New Zealand, France, Russia and Japan?
Willie: Japan will push France and Russia because those sides don’t know too much about them and that is the threat that they bring and that is why I am excited about it. The thing about rugby here in Japan is that they are excited by the growth and now with women’s sevens being the quickest growing sport in the world, it just means that now they have qualified for the next series, young girls in Japan are going to look at that and say that could be us in a few years time for the Olympics and the like. These girls know they are carrying that responsibility of the home tournament and sure New Zealand will push them, but the other sides beware.
And Pool B with Australia, Fiji, Ireland and Brazil - sides that are very familiar with each other?
Melodie: Australia are fascinating, their coach has talked about selecting and changing the players around because it supports the new tactics and style he wants to play. Leaving his captain Sharni Williams at home is massive, but what it suggests to me in the players he has selected is that he is looking for more speed across the park in order to counter some of the other teams that have got speed in every position. He has identified one or two places that they need to fix and changed his team accordingly. He has been one of the best at identifying new talent, nurturing them, bringing them through and turning them into worldwide stars so I am fascinated to see how this experiment is going to work and what style they put out there.
One hurdle Australia haven't been able to overcome, in complete contrast to last year, is New Zealand - what has changed?
Melodie: The main reason I believe New Zealand have beaten them in those games is the physicality that New Zealand have brought to those matches. Usually Australia can compete in that area, but for some reason the New Zealanders this year just want it more and so they have been more aggressive and extremely tactical in that they don’t give the Australians much ball and so the Aussies have to get the ball and maintain possession and then they will get the tries. They have kind of been suffocated of the ball in those four games. It is kind of simple, but it is more difficult when you get out there to try and actually roll it out!
Willie: It is a mental thing for Australia for me. New Zealand have obviously used Portia Woodman in the forwards and having Michaela Blyde out wide means they have got multiple threats, but I think that where Australia beats them is up the middle. Australia have the steppers and the players that they don’t need to try and match New Zealand on the outside, if they can use their steppers in the midfield and create some space I think they will definitely win if they were to meet.
Finally to Pool C with Canada, USA, Spain and England and the latest battle for North American pride?
Melodie: If I have to pick one I am going to say Canada. They are missing Kayla Moleschi who is key for them, but the players they have brought in are just as experienced so they are not really missing much there. Just the way they consistently play the game, they are a good team in that they like each other, they have a great coach, they have got confidence because they have had a victory this season and they don’t fear anybody. The United States are extremely dangerous in that pool and if Naya Tapper ‘does the Baker’ – because she is very much like him (men's star Perry Baker) expect for probably being more of a power player so super fast – then they are tough to beat but I would still say Canada will still take that out.
Willie: The all-American rivalry, I think it is a healthy thing, particularly in terms of the Pan-American Games and qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. I am going to disagree with Mel, I think the USA team is the one for me. Something is just starting to click now, I think they have got belief, that (captain Alev) Kelter brings a huge amount of manna and also respect, you have got Tapper and a few others, I just like the way they are building and I think they will take out Pool C. But watch out for England, they are desperate now and they don’t want to end up in the same place where Spain and Brazil are (facing the threat of relegation from the series) and so they will be wanting to avoid that more than anything else.
So, putting you both on the spot, who do you think will lift the trophy this weekend?
Willie: I am going Australia and I only say that because I think it is overdue. I think anyone who knows the Australians knows they don’t like silver, it doesn’t really match their colours. They always want gold. Tim Walsh is a terrific coach and he sets high standards and so the team he has brought here is one of pace and is one they are looking to change things up with so Australia, for me, is the team to beat this week.
Melodie: I can’t go past New Zealand because they have won two titles, they have got a consistent side they have brought here and if you look at the size of some of their girls they have got power players who can break tackles, so I am going to be safe and say that the form team so far over this year is probably going to take it, but don’t put money on it because this is closer than ever, ever before. I like to stay on the fence!
Willie: Sydney, it was supposed to be an Australia-New Zealand final, those are the teams you would have expected to get there but it just goes to show that if you are one per cent off your game at that semi-final level then you are going to get beaten. Many of the crowd and even players didn’t expect that I’m sure, but that is the beauty of sport.
Do you agree with Willie and Melodie? Join the conversation @WorldRugby7s using #Kitakyushu7s.