Promotion/relegation battle heats up
After the excitement of Round Six of the IRB Sevens World Series in Hong Kong, the action gets straight back underway in Japan this weekend.
Round Seven, the Tokyo Sevens, takes place at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground on Saturday (March 30) and Sunday (March 31).
The 2013 tournament is another key stepping stone towards 15-man World Cup 2019 in Japan.
The 2012 Tokyo Sevens was the first international Sevens tournament to be held in Japan in 11 years and just six years now remain until Japan hosts the sport's biggest event.
"JRFU is the host union of World Cup 2019, which will be held in Asia for the first time, and it will be a great asset for us to continue to host this high level IRB-sanctioned competition," said JRFU Tournament Director, Junichi Inagaki.
"We learnt a lot from hosting last year's Sevens tournament and since then we have worked very closely with the IRB in preparation for this year's Tokyo Sevens. We wish from our heart that all the fans, players and everyone involved will enjoy the tournament."
On the pitch, the outcome of the matches in Tokyo will have a major bearing on positions at the top of the IRB Sevens World Series, but also on the promotion/relegation battle at the bottom.
Ahead of this weekend's Tokyo Sevens, the seventh round of the IRB Sevens World Series, New Zealand sit top of the Series standings on 113 points.
Gordon Tietjens' side are 25 points ahead of last week's champions Fiji in second place, and a further four ahead of Samoa who are third.
Despite having won just one Cup this season, and one less than Fiji, New Zealand are the only side to have successfully reached every Cup quarterfinal this season, and appeared in four of the six finals.
It is that consistency that sees them ahead at the top, and on course to win an 11th World Series title, although captain DJ Forbes
"I think some other countries target certain tournaments, but for us the onus to win the Series is always the same," said Forbes.
"A big key for us is consistency and a lot of that is down to Gordon Tietjens. When we can get our Cup wins it is exciting, but the ultimate goal for us is to keep or extend our lead in the Series.
"I have been in situations where others have clawed it back in the end though. This is probably the biggest lead we have had but there are still three tournaments to go and although I would love to say it is ours you never know what might happen and we never take anything for granted. We need to do well here to eliminate any chance of countries taking it away from us."
Fiji and Samoa may well be looking over the shoulders at South Africa, who are a further six points behind Samoa rather than ahead, though, as they look to build momentum ahead of this year's World Cup Sevens in Moscow in June.
"We are focusing their [the boys'] minds for this weekend and we need to maintain our position now," said Samoa coach Faamoni Lalomilo.
"I don't think we have any chance to catch up on New Zealand, it is over 20 points. It is a battle between us, Fiji and South Africa for second now, so the chance is there to move up or down. We know we can move to second if we play well.
"I try my best to finish in second position, not only for the new faces, but to put us in second place ahead of the World Cup."
However, if Fiji can win a third Cup title this season in Tokyo, they will close the gap on Tietjens' side. But winning back to back tournaments has become harder than ever before on the most competitive Series to date.
"It is true it is hard to win two in a row," added Fiji coach Alifereti Dere.
"It happened to use last year when we won in Hong Kong and then came here and went into the Plate. We will see what we can do to improve our performance from then, it is about adjusting well.
"It is important for us to maintain our position at this moment too because we were second last year overall and it is important for us to stay consistent."
At the final round of the IRB Sevens World Series, the London Sevens in May, the three lowest-ranked of the current 15 core teams will have to play off for the three available core team places on the 2013/14 Series against Asian champions Hong Kong and the four teams who battled through pre-qualifying last weekend: Zimbabwe, Russia, Tonga and Georgia.
It is a scenario that every team wants to avoid, including Australia, who line up as defending champions in Tokyo, but are currently only 12 points above Portugal in 13th place, and need every point they can get in Japan and Scotland over the next two rounds.
"We are certainly not safe, there are a few teams quite close to us so we are going for as many points as possible," said Australia's captain, Jesse Parahi.
"Like always, going into the second tournament it is all about mental toughness. The guys really have to pick themselves up after the week before and perform again."
The teams in danger:
Canada - ninth, 51 Series points
Canada look a class act and fully deserve to be inside the top 10 this season. Their Plate runners-up place in Hong Kong took them to 51 points overall and, with a side rammed full of the country's finest talent, they should be good enough to keep themselves out of the relegation zone.
They line up in Tokyo against New Zealand and France and hosts Japan. With respect to the Tokyo hosts, the experienced Canadians should prove too strong for them, but their next match, against France, is their must-win pool game.
England - 10th, 50 points
England finished strongly in Hong Kong, Ben Ryan bullying a new-found attitude out of his side to claim the Bowl and take eight valuable points. But there is no hiding from the fact that they have only managed to reach one Cup quarterfinal in six rounds this season - in Wellington, where they went on to win the title.
Facing the relegation play-off tussle at Twickenham would be ignominious to say the least and the 22 points from Wellington should be enough to keep them out of trouble. However, they do face the 'group of death' this weekend and will need to hit their straps from the first minute against Argentina, defending Tokyo champions Australia and Samoa, who beat them soundly last week.
Australia - 11th, 45 points
Michael O'Connor's side has reached three Cup quarter-finals this season, but has not progressed further than that in a Cup. Injured captain Ed Jenkins has been a big loss, but the return of James Stannard in Hong Kong seemed to inject a bit of belief into the side, and they will feel they have unfinished business from Hong Kong, where they went down to eventual champions Fiji and then Plate winners, Samoa.
They also face the 'group of death' this weekend with pool matches against Argentina, England and Samoa, who edged them in the Hong Kong Plate semi-final.
Scotland - 12th, 34 points
Scotland lie in 12th place in the standings, far closer to Portugal and the relegation 'danger zone' than the teams above them. While the Scots' Shield semi final finish last weekend added only one point to their season's rolling tally, the Portuguese notched 10 in reaching a third Cup quarterfinal this Series, which may yet prove crucial.
Stephen Gemmell's men line up in Pool B in Tokyo desperately needing to win two of their matches on day one against Kenya, Wales and USA.
Portugal - equal 13th, 33 points
Portugal are the best of the sides currently in the 'relegation zone'. With their players stretched across 15-a-side and Sevens duties, the Lobos haven't always been at their best this season but the side that beat Scotland and Samoa in Hong Kong pool play last weekend is pretty much as good as it gets. They came so close to beating Kenya and making the Cup semi finals and Pedro Leal is the key man.
They will fancy their chances first up against Iberian neighbours Spain in Tokyo and they have also beaten South Africa this season, but they won't want to have to beat Fiji to make the Cup quarters.
United States - equal 13th, 33 points
Equal on points with Portugal, the USA are also one big effort away from lifting themselves out of the relegation zone, although they do also rely on the teams above them slipping up. They lost out on valuable points by losing their Bowl semi final to Hong Kong last weekend and may come to rue that match come the end of the season.
In Tokyo they face a tough ask: Hong Kong runners-up Wales will be out to keep up their strong form, Kenya edged them by three points in pool play last week and Scotland are also scrapping for their lives.
Spain - 15th, 24 points
Spain have been brilliant on occasions this season and possess real game-breakers in the likes of captain Pablo Feijoo, big Javier Canosa and the season's fourth-highest try-scorer, Pedro Martin, but they are the only side not to have reached a Cup quarterfinal, which really hits their points tally.
Portugal is a must-win game for them, otherwise it will be an uphill battle against South Africa and Fiji, although they did give the islanders one of their toughest matches in Hong Kong.
(Kick-off is local time - GMT plus nine hours)
Australia v England, 10.00
Samoa v Argentina, 10.22
Fiji v South Africa, 10.44
Portugal v Spain, 11.06
Wales v United States, 11.28
Kenya v Scotland, 11.50
New Zealand v France, 12.12
Canada v Japan, 12.34
Australia v Argentina, 14.07
Samoa v England, 14.29
Fiji v Spain, 14.51
Portugal v South Africa, 15.13
Wales v Scotland, 15.35
Kenya v United States, 15.57
New Zealand v Japan, 16.19
Canada v France, 16.41
England v Argentina, 17.13
Australia v Samoa, 17.35
South Africa v Spain, 17.57
Fiji v Portugal, 18.19
United States v Scotland, 18.41
Wales v Kenya, 19.03
France v Japan, 19.25
New Zealand v Canada, 19.47
With thanks to the IRB