With less than a month to go until the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2018 gets underway in Dubai, the Oceania Rugby Sevens Championship in Suva will provide a key marker for teams like hosts Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Samoa.
The men’s and women’s events will again run side by side at ANZ Stadium in the Fijian capital on Friday and Saturday with Olympic gold medallists Fiji and Australia the defending champions, while New Zealand’s women arrive as world series champions.
However, there is more than just the Oceania regional titles to be decided over the next two days as two teams – one men’s and one women’s – will qualify for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco next July.
Defending RWC Sevens champions New Zealand, Fiji, Australia and Samoa are already confirmed in the men’s competition in San Francisco, just as defending champions New Zealand, Australia and Fiji are in the women’s event.
The highest ranked outside these qualified teams in both the men’s and women’s events will join them at RWC Sevens with one further men’s team to be determined at the Pacific Mini Games in Vanuatu in December.
These two teams will also take their places as the invitational teams in the HSBC Sydney Sevens on 26-28 January with the men’s qalifier also playing in the Hamilton round the following weekend as well.
On top of that, two men’s and one women’s teams will take their place in the qualifying tournament in Hong Kong next April when core team status for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2019 will be up for grabs.
Hosts Fiji are the top seeds in the men’s competition and will face American Samoa and New Caledonia in Pool A, while New Zealand are joined in Pool B by Cook Islands and Nauru.
Australia will face Tonga and the Solomon Islands in Pool C with Samoa to meet Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Tahiti in Pool D.
Jerry Tuwai, one of the nominees for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year 2017 in association with HSBC, will captain Fiji in their title defence while the experienced duo of Scott Curry and Tim Mikkelson will spearhead the All Blacks Sevens campaign under new coach Clark Laidlaw.
Women to provide finale
Australia arrive in Suva on the back of victories in invitational tournaments including the inaugural Oktoberfest Sevens in Germany and Silicon Valley Sevens in California, albeit with a development side with coaches having elected to select eight debutants in order to give players game time to broaden the depth of their squad.
“There is some really exciting talent in this group and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do on the park this weekend, in what will be a very challenging competition,” admitted assistant coach Jarred Hodges who takes charge of the team in Fiji.
In the women’s event, New Zealand will tackle Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands and Tahiti in Pool A with Australia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga drawn in Pool B.
The Oceania Rugby Sevens Championship will break new ground with the women’s final to close out the tournament after Oceania Rugby announced plans to alternate the order of the title deciders to reflect the importance of equality for men and women in rugby.
For Australia coach Tim Walsh, the tournament is a vitally important one for his side and the region.
Growing the game
“For the region it is brilliant and we love competing in the Oceania Sevens,” admitted Walsh, who has included two of the players who caught the eye in the recent Aon University Sevens Series alongside his established stars. “We particularly love going to Fiji for so many different reasons, again just enhancing and encouraging the growth of the sport throughout the world.
“Oceania is our region and we have been competing in it every year since I have been involved, that’s six years. You look at it in terms of preparation, I have always aimed up for it because it was a great opportunity to prepare for Dubai.
“It is a great warm-up into the world series and it is positioned perfectly for that so there are all different levels for it, but you know the spiritual home of sevens being Fiji and how they love and embrace the game and it is just a great place to play.”
Australia and New Zealand played a five-game series last month and the Black Ferns have sent an equally impressive squad to Fiji with several Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 winners and two of the nominees for the World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year 2017, in association with HSBC, in Michaela Blyde and Ruby Tui. Kayla McAlister, a former recipient of that award, was set to play her first international tournament since Rio 2016 following the birth of her daughter, but injury has ruled her out at the last minute.
Fiji, lead by Ana Maria Roqica, will be eager to give their home fans something to celebrate with a first win over the top two seeds, while Papua New Guinea will be eager to claim the 'best of the rest' mantle and earn not only another appearance in Sydney but also RWC Sevens qualification. The Cook Islands and Samoa represented Oceania at the Olympic Games repechage in 2016, though, and will harbour their own dreams of qualification for San Francisco.
Play gets underway at 11:00 local time (GMT+13) on Friday and live streaming will be available here.