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Preview: NZ Sevens

Wed, 30 Jan 2013 18:12
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The injury-hit Blitzbokke have it all to do
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New Zealand will be looking for a second Cup win this season, this time on home soil, when Wellington hosts the New Zealand leg of the IRB Sevens World Series this weekend.

With three rounds played in 2012, New Zealand lead the World Series from second-placed France, and Gordon Tietjens’s charges will be hunting a third successive title in Wellington. The hosts will be the favourites to top pool A, which includes USA, England and Spain.

The big surprise so far this season - twice Cup semifinalists already and ranked second in the Series following their runners-up slot in Port Elizabeth - the French have based their new-found focus and hunger on a dogged defence. They tackle Argentina, Kenya and Tonga in pool B.

Fourth-placed South Africa are the top seeds in Pool C, the toughest of the four pools, and will come up against Wales, Canada and fifth-placed Samoa.

The Blitzbokke are expected to quality for the Cup quarterfinals but their chances of reaching the semifinals look slim as injuries have swept through the squad.  

Captain Kyle Brown (ankle), playmaker Cecil Afrika (knee), Branco du Preez (hamstring), Steven Hunt (ankle) and Ruwellyn Isbell (soft tissue neck injury) are all unavailable because of injury and will see a new-look South African outfit, which includes 19-year-old debutants Justin Geduld and Seabelo Senatla, take to the Westpac Stadium pitch.

Samoa claimed their first ever Cup title in Wellington in 2007 and consequently consider the venue a home away from home, which will make the Blitzbokke’s campaign all the more challenging.

"It was a great time for the side to win their first Cup and it was really special for me to see the boys performing so well from back home,” said Samoa coach, Faamoni Lalomilo, who was watching the 20007 heroics as a mere spectator from Samoa.

"It was a long time ago, but we call the Westpac Stadium a home away from home, we have a lot of support and a big community here, and we are looking to use that as inspiration to win here again."

Lalomilo will be hoping his side can close the gap on those teams above them and has an extra reason for his side to perform well.

"The Series is tough, and every pool is competitive. But we also want a good result this weekend for the people who suffered from the cyclone back home over Christmas."

Third-placed Fiji have a favourable draw that should see them top pool D after Day One with Australia, Portugal and Scotland set to fight for the second qualifying spot.

At the other end of the series table an intriguing picture is already emerging as to who might be involved in the promotion/relegation tournament at the ninth round in London, involving the bottom three-ranked core teams after Round Eight in Glasgow.

If that tournament was played today, England – in lowly 13th place - would find themselves needing to reconfirm their core team status. In spite of their current standing, England coach Ben Ryan says the new process has added a new dimension to the Series.

"I am smiling nervously," admitted Ryan. "But we are not thinking of that [the promotion/relegation] and it is not where we will be come the end of the season. Yes we are currently 13th in the world, but we will push ourselves up the table during the remainder of the season.

"What the new process does is put more pressure on you if that is how you deem it to be. Added to that, the new teams have come in and all done well, which means the traditional sides who may have had it easy are pushed into a position they don't want to be.

"It is great for the game to have the promotion and relegation as there are a lot of teams that would like to do what we do and now there is a transparent way to always have the best sides in the world on the Series, which is great heading forward towards the Olympics."

England have battled with injuries to key players all season, but they will welcome back Mat Turner with open arms, as well as Christian Lewis-Pratt, and hope they can turn things around.

"We thoroughly enjoy the New Zealand Sevens," said Ryan.

"Once we get over the jet lag it is outstanding. I have some fond memories here but our goal is very simple for this weekend and that is to improve on where we are.

"I love the game, but it does come with its highs and lows. Whether you like it or not, one good or bad thing from you or an opponent, or one injury or a sin bin can change the whole slant of your two days, and even the previous six to nine months preparation.

"Wins and losses do happen, but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. You have to embrace where you are and I am very lucky running such a good team in a proud rugby nation. Sevens is an incredible sport and I hope to be involved for a long time to come."

Day One schedule - Friday, February 1:
(Kick-off times are local - GMT plus 13 hours)
Match 1: France v Kenya, 13.00
Match 2: Argentina v Tonga, 13.22
Match 3: South Africa v Samoa, 13.44
Match 4: Wales v Canada, 14.06
Match 5: Portugal v Australia, 14.28
Match 6: Fiji v Scotland, 14.50
Match 7: New Zealand v England, 15.12
Match 8: United States v Spain, 15.34
Match 9: France v Tonga, 15.56
Match 10: Argentina v Kenya, 16.18
Match 11: South Africa v Canada, 16.40
Match 12: Wales v Samoa, 17.02
Match 13: Portugal v Scotland, 17.24
Match 14: Fiji v Australia, 17.46
Match 15: New Zealand v Spain, 18.08
Match 16: United States v England, 18.30
Match 17: Kenya v Tonga, 18.52
Match 18: Samoa v Canada, 19.14
Match 19: France v Argentina, 19.36
Match 20: Australia v Scotland, 20.28
Match 21: England v Spain, 20.50
Match 22: South Africa v Wales, 21.12
Match 23: Portugal v Fiji, 21.34
Match 24: New Zealand v United States, 21.56

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