Chris Knight scored freely on the HSBC World Sevens Series for Wales. This season he is giving his thoughts on what is proving to be a very entertaining series. Today he looks back at Vancouver Sevens.
England prove to be a prickly rose
Having drawn with South Africa on day one England finished second in their group on points difference. They fought off a resilient New Zealand side 14-12 in the quarters before crushing an out-of sorts Fijian side 40-7 in the semi-final. England then downed the BlitzBokke 19-7 in a pulsating final to be crowned champions of the second Vancouver sevens.
So far this season they are the only team to have beaten South Africa and in the five times they have played each other England have won three and drawn one.
Across the entire weekend they played an expansive but clinical brand of rugby. The entire squad was excellent with three players - James Rodwell, Tom Mitchell and Dan Norton - being included in the Vancouver Dream team. The later also picked up his third DHL impact player of the tournament and now tops this both this seasons try scoring charts with 33 and the overall chart with a colossal 244 tries.
England currently find themselves in second place on the series having overtaken Fiji. They are 23 points behind leaders South Africa with only four tournaments remaining. With a maximum total of 88 points available the series is far from over, however I feel it would take a collapse as famous as Malta’s Azure Window for South Africa to surrender the series.
Familiarity doesn't breed contempt
Last weekend in Las Vegas Simon Amor’s team set a new series record having named the same 12 players for five consecutive tournaments.
Amor finally had to make his first and only change last weekend in Vancouver with Ollie Lindsey Hague not recovering from an injury sustained in Las Vegas. Whether it is pure luck or just credit towards Englands training programme and physiotherapy department, that kind of team consistency is unheard of in todays brutal sevens environment.
With consistency comes experience, and England have had the most experienced side for the last four tournaments. This season they have averaged 320 caps per tournament, which is the highest of any team. In fact the only time they have dipped below 300 caps was round one in Dubai when they had 293.
This experience and consistency has been crucial in their successful start to this season. The squad knows each other inside out and that has reflected in the teams performances. The success and euphoria of the Olympics also seems to be a contributing factor, with the players seeming to be free of both pressure and expectation. The result is that the entire squad are playing the game with smiles on their faces , well maybe not Richard de Carpentier.
South Africas squad continues to be stretched
Trailing England 19-7 in the cup final with one minute 50 seconds on the clock, all hope of a South African comeback vanished when Rosko Specman pulled up with what looked like a nasty hamstring injury.
The dreadlocked playmaker has been in irresistible form this season and has seemingly picked up the mantle since Senatla departed for Super Rugby. His footwork would not look out of place in a Michael Flatley concert and he has lighting pace and rapid acceleration to accompany it.
Just like in Las Vegas Specman helped South Africa reach the final by scoring several incredible solo tries when they needed him the most, with his effort against Canada being the pick of the bunch. As a result he he was deservedly named in the HSBC Dream team for the second week in a row.
With Neil Powell already without Kyle Brown, Kwagga Smith, Justin Geduld and Seabelo Senatla, he will be hoping that the damage Specman sustained is not serious. Hong Kong is just over three weeks away and historically it is a tournament that South Africa have not done well at. With the BlitzBokke only ever reaching three finals Powell will hope to have one of Specman or Geduld back if he wants that record to change.
Vancouver is fast becoming one of the best venues on the series
it may only be in its second year as a venue on the World Series, but Vancouver is going from strength to strength as over 75,000 fans converged into BC Place across the weekend.
What makes Vancouver a unique tournament is the venue. The closed roof not only amplifies and creates an unique atmosphere within the stadium but also shields the pitch from the elements creating perfect sevens conditions. Throw in fact that Vancouver has a mild climate and the artificial pitch is one of the widest on the circuit, and the result was a fast and expansive brand of sevens being played across the entire weekend.
The fans created the incredible atmosphere and helped in making the weekend an overall success. As Rob Vickerman noted Vancouver was a proper rugby crowd, both knowledgeable about the game and fully engaged in the on-field action. With a strong fancy dress contingent throughout the weekend, the fans struck a fine balance of both enjoying themselves and the rugby. It was also great to see so many families in the stands, something which is a rarity on the series, proving that sevens can and should be enjoyed by everyone.
Another big factor to consider when selecting a tournament venue is the city the stadium is located in. Squads and officials will spend up to a week in each of the 10 locations on the circuit, adapting to its climate, time zone and fine tuning their preparations for the tournament. As a chance to relax and get away from both the rugby and the hotel, teams like to enjoy their downtime and days off taking in what the host city has to offer.
As far a the 10 locations on the circuit go Vancouver is definitely one of the best cities to be staying in. There is no shortage of things to do, from exploring it’s snow capped mountains, beautiful parks and beaches or just chilling out in its multiple districts. It is also culturally very familiar to many of the teams on the circuit with similar food, laws and no language barrier.
With all this in mind I believe Vancouver will continue to grow year by year and maintain its status on the circuit for years to come.
Youngsters are stealing the show
Argentinas Matias Osadczuk was in fine form across the two days of competition scoring six tries on the was to being named in the HSBC Vancouver Dream team. The 19 year old possess both pace and power bringing a physical edge to Los Pumas attack. His six tries in Vancouver brought him up to 23 for the season, putting him 4th in the overall try scoring charts. He also isn't afraid to get stuck in at any opportunity and his tackling typifies Argentinas fearless and dogged defensive style.
Another youngster who turned heads in Vancouver was Vilimoni Koroi. The 18 year old was the spark in New Zealand’s attack, not only creating chances for team mates but also producing moments of individual brilliance. His chip and collect against Canada was not only incredibly astute but no fluke either with him reproducing the goods against Argentina to score the match winning try and snatch fifth place.
Both players are only in their first full season on the Sevens circuit and if their countries can keep them within the sevens system they will certainly be stars at the 2020 Olympics.
Touchline kicking on point
The near perfect conditions at BC place meant that touchline conversions where being slotted from all angles. Despite the overall the conversion rate being only slightly above the series average (65% to 64%), conversions from within the 5m channels where at a series high of 43%, up from average of 29%.
The best example had to be in the Argentina vs Fiji match on day one. Los Pumas had just scored in the corner to make it 24-24, however they needed to win the game to go through into the top eight of the competition. Up stepped Javier Rojas to calmly slot the conversion from the touchline to win the match and break Welsh hearts.
He wasn't alone, across the weekend Tom Mitchell and Madison Hughes were knocking them over for fun and Wales’s Ethan Davies seemed to have laser sights installed, either that or it could be a side effect of growing up in the South Wales Valleys.
Kenya Limp out of another Tournament
Kenya ended the Vancouver sevens in unspectacular fashion as they were beaten by Samoa 26 – 7 in the Challenge trophy semi-final. It was disappointing exit for the side, finishing 11th and only winning two out of five games all weekend.
With one top eight finish this season (sixth-place in South Africa) Kenya currently languish in 13th Place with 40 points. In comparison after six rounds of the 2015/16 season, under previous coach Benjamin Ayimba, Kenya had 53 series points.
Some would argue that the newly appointed head coach Innocent Simiyu has at his disposal the finest crop of Kenyan sevens players seen in recent times. However the performances haven’t been there to back that theory up.
Kenya have shown in glimpses that the are more than capable of fighting it out with the best. On more than one occasion this season they have lead the top teams only to fall away in the latter stages. In Vancouver they lead England 14-7 after 10 minutes before a yellow started a capitulation which saw them lose 28-14.
Questions have been raised with regards to Simiyu’s coaching experience, with club level being the highest level he has coached at. Kenyan fans will also look to the fact that the other core teams who changed head coaches in the summer recruited those with previous international sevens experience.
With Kenyan fans being some of, it not, the most passionate supporters on the circuit they will certainly be hoping for a dramatic improvement in the last four tournaments. For Simiyu that will start with a consistent team selection.
Once again a big thank you to Matt Trenary, who has a host of World Series data available at www.trenarian.com, for backing up my kicking assumptions with statistics.