Chasing Women's Sevens glory in Amsterdam
As New Zealand close in on the first ever IRB Women’s Sevens World Series crown, Scrumqueens.com editor Ali Donnelly takes a look at what it takes to be the best.
This weekend is the final dress rehearsal for Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow, and New Zealand’s women head to Amsterdam knowing that a semi-final spot will be enough to see them crowned the inaugural IRB Women’s Sevens World Series champions.
But the beauty of Sevens is that nothing is ever guaranteed and, with England travelling with confidence after victory in London, it should be a fascinating race to the top of the standings in the Netherlands this weekend.
Watching teams play out the knockout games in the rain on day two in London last weekend served as a useful reminder to us mere mortals that the conditioning levels of these players has made them easily the fittest athletes to have ever played women’s rugby.
The need to be able to play with and in pain was listed last week as a prerequisite for international Sevens players at an open day put on by the RFU on behalf of both the England men’s and women’s sides.
Playing two-day (and in the men’s case, sometimes three-day) tournaments is tough. With bodies recovering from bruising pool games on day one, players must then gather up tired and sore limbs for the most important set of matches on the second day.
England’s women speak regularly about “Game Six”- the need to peak at the end of physical competitions on the second day and in the final game. That requires peak fitness but also other factors, which are not always transferable to the Fifteens game.
As well as being able to cope with playing in pain, these factors include the need to maintain focus despite often sharing changing rooms with a number of other sides and the need to be able to switch off mentally in between games to aid recovery. Then to switch back on come the whistle for each game.
Throw in other variables like adapting to time zones, climate and jet lag and you begin to get a much more thorough picture of what the sides participating in this season’s first Women’s Series have had to adapt to. It is not easy and the side that lifts the title this weekend will be fully deserving of it.
As the Women’s Sevens World Series is set to grow year on year, new sides on the circuit will need to adapt quickly to these rapidly advanced fitness levels – the likes of which are taking the women’s game to truly excellent global standards.
Skills rising across the board
The advance too this season of an IRB-organised circuit has had a massively positive effect on the skill levels across the board.
Training together much more regularly – and in the case of sides like USA, Canada and Netherlands, full-time – has allowed major strides to be made in areas of the women’s game that are often unfavourably compared to the men’s game.
With women often taking up the game later than their male counterparts - and with less time together as international outfits - on occasion, handling, kicking and catching has not been as consistent at the top level as many would like. But the new funding coming into women’s Sevens as a result of Olympic participation has allowed top sides to spend time working on all those aspects - and it is showing.
This weekend, 12 sides will aim to showcase that huge improvement with the likes of Australia and Canada looking to build on positive outings in London. Australia were impressive, reaching the final with four 17-year-olds in their squad and having rested some experienced players like captain Rebecca Tavo. Chris Lane is truly building for 2016, but his players are showing that along the way they are well capable of taking some scalps.
Canada, who could have reached the final in London save for a breakdown in communications in the semi-final that saw them kick the ball out on the final play instead of pushing for the winning score, are also looking to really peak in time for Moscow and will get a chance for revenge against England, who they face in the pool stages.
This first Series has been a wonderful addition to the women's game, and is set for a great climax.
Ali Donnelly is the editor of women's rugby website scrumqueens.com