Dubai women's Sevens title wide open
In her latest column for the official Women's Sevens World Series website, Scrumqueens.com editor Ally Donnelly runs the rule over the squads for Dubai, the first ever round of the Series.
While all interest in women's rugby has been fixed for the past few weeks on the Autumn test games involving England, New Zealand, France USA and Italy, attention turns firmly to the rather warmer climes of Dubai this weekend.
In my first column I said that England’s 2011/12 form would make them favourites to lift the title this weekend, but with the inexperienced squad they eventually decided on, making the final on Sunday would be a massive achievement.
In choosing to prioritise the tests against New Zealand this week, England are in Dubai shorn of big name players such as Michaela Staniford, Alice Richardson and Jo Watmore, and while the experience of the coming week will boost their strength in depth in the long-run, England are up against some serious experience beyond the pool stages.
With the likes of World Cup winners Carla Hohepa and Huriana Manuel in their exciting line-up, New Zealand are likely to be a real threat in their first major outing in some time, while their arch rivals Australia can count on huge experience and ability in players like Rebecca Tavo and Emilee Cherry, who have been key players over the past year.
Canada, who have been one of the stars of the women’s Sevens game in recent seasons, have the likes of Jen Kish and Mandy Marchak leading their charge and neighbours USA welcome back the hugely powerful Vanesha McGee to skipper the side.
But the strength of women’s Sevens is its ability to allow the developing nations and the lesser known players to shine – here are some to watch out for over the weekend.
Big outings for Brazil and Russia
In Pool A, underdogs Brazil will be out to continue their rapid rise. The leading South American side, Brazil always comfortably power to wins in their region, but they have a problem with a lack of regular competition meaning that when they come up against European or North American sides, they inevitably struggle. But their rugby union is investing plenty in its women’s set up, ahead of hosting the Olympics in 2016, and Brazil are only going to improve.
Their efforts to continue their progress recently meant a two-week trip to New Zealand, and a player to watch out for is surely Paula Ishibashi, whose pace power and strength making her a real go-to player for her country.
In Pool B Russia will be a fascinating side to keep an eye on. One of the most improved sides in the world, despite some inconsistency, the Russians are also one of the most physical on the circuit. They warmed up for Dubai at the Valencia Sevens, where they went well. China will be a key game for them at the pool stages and they will also look to ruffle some feathers against the more fancied Canada and New Zealand.
In Pool C, France will be hoping to bring some of their European Championship form to Dubai from earlier this year, a tournament where they qualified for the World Cup and made up for disappointing outings in London and Amsterdam.
France, though, can be as unpredictable in Sevens as they can be at the 15s game and there is no knowing if they can rise to the challenge this weekend. They do have in their ranks a number of exciting faces to watch out for - one being teenage sensation Shannon Izar, an international class heptathlete who showed her ability in her new sport with a good performance for France on debut in the Marcoussis tournament last month.
In the same pool, the Netherlands' full-time Sevens athletes will be wanting to carry on where they left off in London in May, when they impressed everyone in beating Australia to reach the final.
New Zealand up and running with Go4Gold
It’s worth a word on New Zealand too this weekend, who unlike England have sent a number of their top 15s players to Dubai, rather than include them in the on-going test series which concludes at Twickenham this weekend. The talented Huriana Manuel captains a side which also includes star Black Ferns Carla Hohepa and Linda Itunu, as well as Hohepa's sister, Chyna.
Apart from an outing in Fiji in August, we know very little of what to expect from this New Zealand squad and their clash with Canada will be one of the highlights of the pool stages.
The tournament is finely poised.
Ally Donnelly is editor of women's rugby website, Scrumqueens.com