As they chase the United States at the top of the World Rugby 7s Series leaderboard, the Flying Fijians cannot look too far ahead. For lurking on the first day at the London 7s rugby this weekend are three up-and-coming teams with something to prove, and a lot of firepower to prove it with.
While every pool in every leg of the series usually contains two power house teams, or at least two strong contenders, together, Pool B in this penultimate leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series features one powerhouse, plus three very dangerous threats.
Fiji’s first-round hurdles
Fiji, who are second on the points table, will first face Kenya, who have had a lean time of it these past few years but finished on a high in the last leg, in Singapore, by winning the playoff for 13th spot.
Gareth Baber’s Fijians, who are defending champions, then face the dangerous and ever-improving France, who won the Challenge Trophy (which means ninth place, or the best of the non-quarterfinalists) in the last leg in Singapore.
The French also finished second in the two legs before that, in Hong Kong and Vancouver, and should prove even more dangerous than usual, as they are playing closer to home and building up to the final leg the weekend after London that they will host.
Fiji then finish off their first round fixtures against arch local rivals Samoa, who have shown a vast improvement this season, including making the quarterfinals in the past four legs.
Samoa improving dangerously
Gordon Tietjens’ Samoan side are sitting handily in sixth spot on the table and have looked sharper and sharper with each leg. This is built, of course on their much improved fitness based on Sir Gordon’s infamously punishing training routines, and look capable of winning a leg sooner rather than later. The try-scoring machine, Johnny Vaili, is just one of several exciting talents in the new Samoa team.
Baber, who was hospitalised with a viral infection last week, flew out later than his team, who arrived in London on Monday to be greeted by a large section of the Fijian community in the English capital.
The now recovered Baber has named a strong team, including new sensation Meli Derenalagi, for the final assault on catching the Americans, who will have three of their best players returning after missing the past two legs.
Eagles back at full strength
Two-time World Sevens Player of the Year Perry “Speed Stick” Baker comes back after breaking his jaw in New Zealand, along with powerhouses Martin Iosefo and Danny Barrett.
The three returnees will supplement a USA team that didn’t win a title in their absence but managed to hold the fort by maintaining their points lead, and collecting experience as they did so for young pups Kevon Williams and Marcus Tupuola
Meanwhile, Carlin Isles, the world’s fastest rugby player, has enjoyed a form resurgence, playing his best rugby in years.
But the key men for USA have been Ben Pinkleman and Stephen Tomasin, who have stepped up well in Barrett’s and Iosefo’s absence .
The USA announced themselves on the HSBC circuit when they won their first ever leg in London four years ago. Since then, Scotland have won twice and Fiji won last year. An American win this weekend would be timely as it would effectively clinch them the series title as well.
Fiji have been warned — but they first have to deal with those dangerous three of France, Kenya and Samoa.
Olympic spots almost secured
With just two tournaments to go, the picture for automatic qualification to the Tokyo Olympics rugby 7s tournament is looking pretty clear.
Only the teams that finish in the top four qualify via this route, and all other teams have to go through regional tournaments.
At this point, the top three — the USA, Fiji and New Zealand — look safe. Either of the first two will be denied only if fifth-placed England win both remaining tournaments in London and Paris while they finish in the bottom four in both. No chance, really.
New Zealand also look safe, and realistically only South Africa look catchable by England or, at a huge stretch, Samoa.
The Blitz Bokke, then, while still in with a chance of winning the series, will also be looking over their shoulder for the English, in terms of the Olympics spot.
The top four, though, really should be the current four teams on top of the table: USA, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa.
Looking further ahead, though, some of the Olympics regional qualification tournaments are starting to look interesting.
There will be one spot each for the six zones (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, South America), while the best finishers in the zones will then have a final chance in the repechage tournament, through which one spot will be available.
At the end of it all, the six regional qualifiers and repechage winner will join the top four from the series, plus hosts Japan in the 12-team event.
In the Oceania zone, Samoa look likely to have to deal with Australia, who are currently one spot behind them on the series table. Tonga would play a spoiling role, at best.
In Africa, and as long as South Africa qualify automatically, Kenya should be able to win, with Zimbabwe possibly the only threat along with Algeria or Morocco.
Canada should win North America, while Argentina should make it comfortably through South America.
With Japan already in, Hong Kong should win Asia.
Europe, though, looks the most interesting, with England (if they dont make it automatically) facing a tough challenge from France, Scotland, Wales, Spain and new series qualifiers Ireland.
Anything can happen, as Samoa found out before the 2016 Olympics, when they were pipped at the death by rank outsiders Spain in the repechage tournament.
Still a lot to play for!