By Nigel Starmer-Smith
I always smile when asked why I get such a kick out of the Wellington leg of the IRB Sevens World Series. Significantly, it's a question that is only ever raised by someone who's never been to the event. It's not just the thrill of the gladiatorial international clashes between the 16 nations taking part, the playing skills on display or the exceptional fitness levels of the participants. It isn't the late summer setting of Wellington itself, less windy than I recall from wet winter Lions tours of yesteryear.
By Nigel Starmer-Smith
I always smile when asked why I get such a kick out of the Wellington leg of the IRB Sevens World Series. Significantly, it's a question that is only ever raised by someone who's never been to the event.
It's not just the thrill of the gladiatorial international clashes between the 16 nations taking part, the playing skills on display or the exceptional fitness levels of the participants. It isn't the late summer setting of Wellington itself, less windy than I recall from wet winter Lions tours of yesteryear.
It isn’t the sell-out 'Cake Tin' either - aka the magnificent Westpac Stadium packed to the rafters each year with 35,000 enthusiastic, partisan, but mostly well-informed party-goers. It isn’t the 'Red Zone', all zany garbs and 'let-your hair-down' behaviour, pop-musical raucous interludes, eye-catching cheerleaders and guest entertainers, or the capital's hinterland of rugged coastline and hills, waterfront and harbour, the pre-tournament street parade.
It isn't even for me the re-union with fellow rugby travellers Keith Quinn, John McBeth and Willie Lose - in fact it's a pity that Anne Quinn's superb home-baked cakes brought each year by Keith to the commentary box have to be shared four ways!
No, the appeal of the Wellington Sevens is not a single one of these things - it is all of them combined: the whole 'package' that creates a rugby weekend to rival any other and which provides so much fun alongside the intensity of world-class sporting action.
Competition fiercer than ever
I suppose it's also fair to say that the fact that the New Zealand squad can no longer just turn up and expect to win their home tournament only adds to the eager anticipation for all.
Having won the three previous Cups in a row, each time on their way to becoming the overall World Sevens Series champions, their semi-final defeat last year at the hands of flamboyant Fiji emphasised again the closeness of the competition these days for every tournament title.
That New Zealand would 'bounce back' after their 'fall from grace' in 2005/06 was never in doubt under the guiding hand of Gordon Tietjens and in this season's opening tournaments NZ have been in both finals: runners-up (12-31) to South Africa in Dubai before turning the tables on the Boks (24-17) at their home event in George.
Wellington's own Nigel Hunt is the new mainspring of the new-look squad and it looks as though nearly all the new team - including some much-needed experience in the form of Edwin Cocker and DJ Forbes - are available for action again, plus the significant and likely return of the fearsome figure central to so many of New Zealand successes in past seasons, Tafai Ioasa. He'd be in my World VII anyway!
For coach Paul Treu of South Africa , though, the omens are less propitious. The perfect start in Dubai in December followed by the runners-up spot in George has cost him; key players Basson, Burger, Mokuena, Floors and Mdaka all impressed and have all been whisked away on Super 14 duty - such is the talent that Sevens unearths and nurtures these days. It'll take more than the returning Gcobani Bobo to fill the gap, but no doubt an additional new star or two will be uncovered in Wellington and San Diego to defy any pessimists out there.
Changing times, too, for England. Twice losing semi-finalists already this season, the mantle of new coach falls on the untried shoulders of Ben Ryan, who takes over from the successful and popular Mike Friday. The absence, too, of the world's leading Sevens point-scorer, Ben Gollings, back from Australia to play fifteens for Doncaster, is of immense significance - a rare talent, a multiple tournament champion and one of the all-time greats of Sevens rugby.
Not even the return from injury of forward Tony 'Rocky' Roques can discount the damage done by Gollings’ departure but Ryan, at 35 one of England's emerging young coaches, is a top-rate addition to the England Sevens scene, albeit still in a part-time capacity. His side is packed full of forward power but is very young indeed.
Serevi calls on old hands in defence of title
And then there's Fiji - driven on by a nation's constant craving for success in their national sport, and urgently in need of a tournament win after two semi-final defeats so far in defence of their first IRB Sevens Series crown in 2005/06. Who could ever dismiss the chances of the World Champions, master-minded as they are by full-time coach and part-time player Waisale Serevi?
Serevi’s performance on the playing-field these days may lack the cutting-edge, electrifying acceleration and bewildering ball skills of old, but the vision and distribution skills remain. His unparalleled record of success on the world stage, from 1989 until now, gives him a unique understanding of Sevens. Nor should the role of assistant coach Jo Savou be underestimated in helping Fiji back to these new glory days. Happily, the precocious William Ryder has been cleared to remain in the squad after problems concerning personal sponsorship and he's destined to delight and dazzle once again.
Add into this mix Fiji's player of the year Lepani Nabuliwaqa, captain Volavola, the huge Semisi Naevo and jinxing Nasoni Roko and various other wonderkids and you'd be advised to put Fiji high on your shortlist! They remain my tip for the Wellington title, despite the absence of one of my favourite current players, Neumi Nanuku, out with an injured knee.
So that appears to be the top quartet of competing nations, which implies no disrespect to the other contenders, notably Samoa, Dubai Plate winners and yet more fancied should Uale Mai return. Argentina will be a threat as ever, especially if they arrive with the key men from their hard-working fifteens and Sevens dual international representatives including the Gomez Cora brothers. Australia are a young team on a fast-track learning curve, with real potential and April’s home event in Adelaide to look forward to. Portugal are constantly gaining in stature as is the new, young Canada squad, whilst Tonga’s record in Wellington for beating - or at least scaring the pants off - many a top four seed is undeniable. Expect another big scalp from their forceful, fearless squad.
As ever the character of the Wellington tournament is enhanced by the return of the likes of Papua New Guinea and the USA as the Eagles prepare for their inaugural San Diego tournament a week later. And, lest we forget, the chance beckons to applaud that country of about a hundred home-based rugby players - the Cook Islands. Forget? How could we? The top try-scorer in Wellington a year ago was from the Cooks, by name Koiatu Koiatu. Here's to him, and every other upset to the form-guide at the NZI Sevens!