The tide of change in Women's Sevens
In her latest column for the official Women's Sevens World Series website, Scrumqueens.com editor Ali Donnelly considers the changes that have happened behind the scenes since she was at the Houston event a year ago.
How things can change in the space of a year.
When you cast your eyes back 12 months, when we were preparing for round two of the inaugural IRB Women’s Sevens World Series in Houston – won eventually by England – you begin to get to grips with the rapid change of pace in the women’s Sevens game.
Of the 12 sides competing in Houston in 2013, just four were involved in centralised training programmes – the Netherlands, Russia, Canada and USA – but as we count down to the Atlanta Sevens on 15-16 February virtually all of the 12 teams are now involved in programmes where their players are part or full-time funded in some form.
These funded programmes have swept through the women’s game with many teams now bringing players together for part or full-time training in one city – or are about to embark on such an activity – and clearly unions are making the most of the funding available for Olympic sports.
We may not be too far away from a time when every side competing on the Series will feature, exclusively, players making their living from the game. New Zealand were one of the top sides to take the plunge recently but it was also pleasing to see the non-World Series core side South Africa's recent announcement of 15 contracted players now based in Port Elizabeth.
Teams to watch
The action aside, there are plenty of other points of note going into round two of the Series in Atlanta.
The Netherlands are back with a new coach, former Australian head honcho Chris Lane, and their development under his tutelage will be worth watching. The first stage of the Dutch project came to a disappointing conclusion at the World Cup, where they lost their core status in the World Series, but they have a chance to start afresh in the lead up to qualification for Rio.
Away from the core sides, Japan will be a team to watch too. As one of Asia’s leading teams, Japan’s progress towards 2016 will certainly be interesting. They were in Vegas recently competing at the USA invitational Sevens and with a second team also in action they are certainly building their experience.
Also in Vegas, Canada showcased their growing depth with two sides contesting the final.
Canada’s entered side, the Maple Leafs, boosted by the inclusion of players like Mandy Marchak and Bianca Farella, beat another Canadian side, Aptoella, in the final, a team led by another Canadian international Barbara Mervin and featuring plenty of experienced faces.
That will have served as a useful warm-up for them and they once again will be a threat in Atlanta. They’ll need to be having been drawn alongside Dubai winners Australia, USA and China in Pool A!
A growing trend
The Atlanta Sevens is a big moment for USA Rugby, who are hoping to use the tournament to continue to boost the profile of the women’s game there. Houston was a starting point and USA Rugby will have taken the lessons from that tournament to build on.
It was interesting to see how the USA and Canada teams spent two weeks together recently training and playing games at the Olympic Training Center in California. Japan have also been in Canada since the Vegas event and will have benefitted from training and playing against a more experienced team.
It’s a growing trend in women’s Sevens which was also evident at the World Cup in Moscow, where plenty of training practices were mixed up between sides. It’s refreshing because it so rarely happens in the Fifteens game, and for lower ranked sides it must be a huge bonus to learn from experience.
A couple of the squads have already been announced for Atlanta and it’s interesting to see that England are likely to be more of a threat than first anticipated with the inclusion of Heather Fisher (the player of the tournament in Houston) and Nolli Waterman, who are easing their way back after injury.
It will also be worth watching how Australia’s younger stars who shone in Dubai are developing in the spotlight, while New Zealand have much to make up for, having blown a huge lead in the final in Dubai.
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