Wellington Sevens: We preview the latest round in the World Sevens Series
Rupert Cox looks ahead to the Wellington Sevens as New Zealand aim to overhaul South Africa.
Last Updated: 06/02/14 8:21pm
Reigning Series champions New Zealand are just a single point back but Sir Gordon Tietjens' men know they have a real fight on their hands to add to the 11 World Series titles they've picked up in 14 seasons.
This weekend the Sevens roadshow arrives in Wellington for Round 5 where the All Blacks have a fine home record. They've won six out of the last 10 Cup finals at the Cake Tin - and will go for a third title in four years on Saturday.
England also enjoy playing in the Kiwi capital. They won an epic final in extra-time against Kenya last year to add to their Cup Final triumph over the hosts in 2009.
Round 4 in Las Vegas was all about the 'Green Machine'. They scored over 150 points in six matches and conceded just two tries all weekend. With defence like that - who would bet against South Africa making it three straight titles?
Coach Neil Powell, though, will have to make do without a key player this weekend. The leading try scorer from the USA Sevens, Seabelo Senatla, is out, but has been replaced by the very capable and very quick, Jamba Ulengo.
Kyle Brown will again captain the side and the irrepressible Frankie Horne will turn out for his 54th consecutive Sevens World Series event. Add the flair of Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez, and the Blitbokke are a potent force.
After back-to-back Cup final losses to South Africa, New Zealand will be desperate to perform in front of their home crowd. As ever, they boast a formidable squad and most importantly welcome back their lynchpin Tomasi Cama, who missed the USA Sevens through injury.
Try scoring machine Sherwin Stowers also returns in Wellington to add more pace as does the big and abrasive Ben Lam - who makes his first appearance of the season. The raw but highly talented Akira Ioane comes in to replace the suspended Sam Dickson.
It's been an up and down year for Dubai champions Fiji. With all the financial issues surrounding the Fijian Rugby Union it's fortunate they are still able to even travel to each event. But Ben Ryan's boys are still in third spot on the table and can beat anyone on their day.
The 44-nil destruction of New Zealand in the Dubai Cup semis on the way to winning that event was arguably THE performance in Sevens World Series history. Ryan called it 'perfect' Sevens and it's hard to argue.
The South Sea Islanders have also picked up two plate trophies this season but consistency and fitness has been their problem. A much anticipated Pool A clash with New Zealand is one not to be missed!
England had a year to forget last season but the one bright note was their performance in Wellington. In an epic Cup final against Mike Friday's Kenya, Sam Edgerley scored a golden point try in added time to take out the main event.
It proved a vital tournament win as without it - they would almost certainly have had to requalify for a core nation spot on the Sevens World Series.
England started the season well but fell away in Port Elizabeth where they finished ninth, but they did pick up the Plate trophy in Las Vegas and with all their star names fit and firing they will give the Cake Tin a real shake.
After missing the USA Sevens, former IRB player of the year nominee Mat Turner comes back into the side to add some pace and creativity and coach Simon Amor hands a debut to the physical prospect Callum Wilson.
In defence of their Wellington crown England's are grouped with South Africa and Wales in Pool play - so to get out of their pool - the Red Rose will have to be in full bloom.
Samoa have fond memories of their home away from home in New Zealand having lifted the NZ Sevens title in 2007. New coach Viliamu Punivalu seems to be getting the 2010 World Series Champions back to something like their imposing best.
They've reached the Cup semi-finals in Port Elizabeth and Las Vegas and have missed out on the main Cup draw just once this season.
The Samoans' ability to retain the ball from restarts is unrivalled. They are top seeds in Pool D which once again stands for 'death'. Last year's Wellington Cup finalists Kenya will pose a major challenge as will Australia - who welcome back their big captain Ed Jenkins from injury. The regional qualifiers Tonga will be no easy-beats either.
South Africa aside - the other big story coming out of Las Vegas was Canada. The Maple Leaf's made their first Cup semi-final in 14 years (the previous was at the Tokyo Sevens way back in 2000). They then stunned Samoa in the playoff to win third place - their best ever finish at a SWS event.
Led superbly by John Moonlight and playmaker Phil Mack, Canada are mixing it with the best on the Sevens circuit and this week coach Geraint John can call upon the services of a few more danger men.
Canadian Sevens stalwarts Natham Hirayama, Sean Duke and Ciaran Hearn all return in Wellington. Top seeds in a Pool featuring Argentina, Scotland and the USA - if you want an outside bet for the NZ Sevens winners then Canada could well be it!
In the unlikely event you get bored of the Sevens then tune in just for the crowd. The Wellington Sevens has become one of the biggest fancy dress parties on earth and really does have to be seen to be believed.
What seems like every university student in New Zealand descends upon the nation's capital for Waitangi Day weekend and imbibes two days of rugby sevens like no other.
We'll see you bright and breezy Friday and Saturday morning for all the live action - plus we're showing extended Highlights on Friday AND Saturday night.