Chris Knight looks back on Singapore Sevens as we head towards Paris this weekend on the HSBC World Sevens Series
Canada are in Sevens heaven
For the second time in two years, Singapore Sevens produced another first time champion as day two parked a string of surprising results. This season it was Canada who triumphed, beating USA 26-19 in the first ever all-American final. Their victory marked their first ever title on the HSBC Sevens World Series and ended their 140 game and 18 year drought.
It wasn’t the luck of the draw which saw Canada claim their maiden title but rather hard work and team spirit. Day one finished in disappointing fashion after a pasting from Fiji left them in second place in their group. After another verbal pasting in the dressing room from head coach Damian McGrath, Canada picked themselves up and rallied on day two. They beat three of the top five teams on the series; trumping New Zealand 26-14 in the quarters, England 17-5 in the semis and then the USA in the final.
Across the two days of competition Nathan Hirayama was on another level. The influential playmaker, who recently surpassed 1000 World Series points, has seamlessly stepped up since Phil Mack retired last year. With his kicking once again flawless he was pivotal in everything Canada did, even scoring a hat trick in the quarter Final against NZ. Hirayama was named as the HSBC Player of the final and was in the tournament Dream team alongside team-mate Justin Douglas, who for a 22 year old, played like a veteran of the World Series.
Canada's success in Singapore was built upon the foundations of self-belief that Damian McGrath so frequently speaks about. McGrath has a squad of players which can all compete and does not need to rely on his starting seven. They have a wealth of experience in Moonlight, Hirayama, Harry Jones and Lucas Hammond which is supplemented by several new faces coming through. In Singapore Canada’s squad totalled 306 event appearances which was only second to England’s 310.
Their cup victory has meant that Canada leap-frogged both Scotland and Argentina and now sit in seventh on World Series standings. They will struggle to match their best ever sixth-placed from 2012/13 as they find themselves 18 points behind Australia. Nevertheless there has already a dramatic improvement from the disappointment of last season.
Damian McGrath King of the North
It is no coincidence that Canada’s first ever Cup victory has come so quickly after the appointment of Damian McGrath.
McGrath came to Canada with a wealth of sevens experience having coached Samoa Sevens to a heroic cup victory in Paris last season and having been part of England’s sevens coaching setup from 2001-2006.
Before being controversially dismissed by the Samoan RFU for failing to the reach the Olympics, McGrath had managed to turn around the fortunes of struggling Samoan programme despite having limited resources, players and a horrendous travel schedule.
Samoa’s loss has clearly been Canada’s gain as it is safe to say that McGrath has already reversed the fortunes of last season. He has galvanised the Canadian squad and added a new level of belief to an already experienced outfit. Canada currently have 76 World Series points with two rounds left to play, a total with is almost double the 40 points which the achieved in the entirety of last season.
Meanwhile Samoa currently Languish in 13th place on World Series table 36 points. They have failed to qualify for the cup this season with 10th place being their highest finish under new coach Sir Gordon Tietjens. The contrasting fortunes of the two sides are proof that the Samoan Rugby Union made a mistake letting McGrath go.
The Cup victory in Singapore also means that McGrath now joins Mike Friday and Ben Ryan in an elite club of sevens coaches who have won tournaments with two different countries. It also gives McGrath North American bragging rights over fellow countryman Mike Friday.
Player welfare is being compromised
Apparently the hotel which accommodated all 16 teams in Singapore looked like the A&E department of a hospital after the competition had finished.
From watching the matches the number of injuries I could source from before the final round of matches were played included;
- USA, England, South Africa, Scotland - 1 injury each
- Wales, Russia, New Zealand - 2 injuries each
- Australia and Argentina - 3 injuries each
These figures could be higher as it does not take into account those injured after the final round of matches. I also could not source information for the other five core teams.
The injuries already come on top of the countless others that teams have sustained through the season with Scotland and South Africa suffering the most and even the ever consistent England being forced into making changes.
Currently all 10 tournaments are held within a 25-week window. Although there are pre-season and continental competitions to factor in, it seems ridiculous to condense one of, if not the most physically demanding team sports in the world into such a short period of time but yet have so much time off. Yes, the players need an off-season but just less than half a year is outstretched.
The introduction of allowing the 13th man to play in the event of an injury even after the tournament has started has helped significantly. However World Rugby needs to introduce further changes or extended the season to protect player welfare.
There have been rumours of bringing the two European legs, Paris and Twickenham, forward to the start of the season. These would be placed in the autumn ahead of Dubai and Cape Town and the season would start much earlier. In addition Singapore and Hong Kong would be moved back to May and the entire season would be stretched out.
This seems a sensible and logical decision which would see the player’s welfare protected and the standard of sevens being improved. Furthermore, it would see the Sevens World Series culminating at the most prestigious stop on the circuit, JHong Kong.
Sam Cross is a Stat man
To avoid any confusion I’m not comparing him to Scatman John despite him being just as creepy.
I’m actually talking about the DHL Impact player award, an award which takes into account tackles, breaks, offloads and carries across every tournament. In Singapore, Sam Cross blew the competition away finishing with a record total of 69 points, 17 higher than second placed Kameli Soejima of Japan. In total he made three breaks, 17 tackles, 17 offloads and a colossal 32 carries.
In Singapore Crossy’s performances helped Wales beat Scotland to claim the Challenge Trophy and finish ninth. Over the past few seasons he has transformed himself into Mr. Consistent for Wales with his hard work on and off the pitch meaning he is always one of the first names down on the team sheet.
He now finds himself leading the DHL performance tracker after eight rounds with 315 points, only three ahead of Dan Norton. Providing neither player picks up an injury in the final two rounds it looks like a two-horse race to claim the overall title.
The most impressive statistic from his total is the 50 offloads he has made, which is 12 more than anyone else in the top seven. I’m not sure how many of those actually go to hand but I'm pretty sure that 60% of the time, it works every time
Mike Friday has turned the USA into a well-oiled machine
Despite suffering heartbreak in Singapore, USA continued maintained their fine run of form to earn their highest placed finish of the season.
One of the key factors in their success has been ball retention at the restarts. The USA are currently the kick off kings, with Folau Niua’s kicks higher than Afro-man it is allowing Perry Baker, Ben Pinkleman and Danny Barrett plenty of time to get underneath them.
According to Matt Trenary (http://trenarian.com) the USA won back 46% of their restarts in Singapore, a figure which is 9% higher than any other team. Across the season their average is 41%, which is 6% higher than second-placed France. Their kick off success in Singapore was key to both denying their opponents possession and scoring tries. They scored the highest number of tries (25) and denied their opponents the ball 25% of the time, the highest of any team.
Discipline has also been another factor. In Singapore the Eagles only committed six penalties across the entire tournament. This has been a consistent theme across the season conceding 120 penalties and only 4 yellow cards in total, the fewest of any core team on the series. This low penalty rate stems directly from USA’s breakdown policy which has seen them favour counter rucking past the ball instead of jackling.
Plucky Australia continue to impress
Australia eventually bowed out of Singapore in fourth place, losing narrowly to England 14-12 in the Bronze medal match.
Despite finishing one place lower than they did in Hong Kong, Andy Friends team once again showed they have the ability to mix it with the top four teams.
Their reward for comfortably topping their group on day one was a quarter-final Vs South Africa. The young Aussie outfit played out of their skin to come back from a 10 point deficit with only a minute remaining to beat the series leaders 19-17.
However the quarter-final match took its toll. They lost their two most experienced players, James Stannard and Ed Jenkins, to injury and as a result were blown away by a dominant USA 40-7.
Once again Australia had one of the least experienced squads with only 188 tournament appearances between them (only Japan and Wales had fewer). 88 of those appearances were lost through injury when Stannard and Jenkins were ruled out. Despite this, the youth once again stepped up to the mark with Simon Kennewell being one of several who impressed across the two days.
What is clear is that Andy Friends early investment in youth is paying off. Their fearless brand of rugby is exciting to watch and both the players and the team will only benefit in the long run from their early World Series exposure.
England, Kenya’s Kryptonite.
Kenyan dreams of retaining their Singapore title were shattered in the quarter-finals when England struck a penalty drop goal in overtime to snatch victory 13-12.
It was a match that many Shujaa fans believed they were robbed of due to poor officiating. Watching the game back there were two major incidents which may have cost Kenya the victory. Firstly with 1:25 left on the clock James Rodwell, who was already on yellow, makes an early tackle which went unpunished from the referee.
Secondly, with the clock in the red, England were awarded a penalty in the 22 and directly in front of the posts. Ruaridh McConnochie then takes the penalty instantly in front of the mark only to be pulled back by the referee for no obvious reason. Dan Bibby then calmly and correctly decides to shoot for the sticks sending Kenya crashing out.
The loss in Singapore now means Kenya haven't beaten England in nearly 6 years with their last victory over the red rose coming back at the London Sevens in 2011. Kenya will have an immediate shot at redemption during round nine in Paris next month when the line up alongside England, France and Spain in Pool C.