Rugby Sevens World Series: Wellington Preview
IRB Sevens World Series leaders New Zealand will look to repeat as champions of the 2013 Hertz Sevens on February 1st and 2nd in Wellington.
Home advantage brought benefits to the All Blacks last season, and now they return to their home ground leading the 2012/13 World Series standings by 14 points over their closest rival.
New Zealand head coach Gordon Tietjens has seen his side fall short in two Cup Finals already this season before they finally claimed victory at the South Africa Sevens in December.
With three different teams having Cup wins to date, the Series is still wide open, and the pressure on the All Blacks will be fierce. Tens of thousands will crowd into Westpac Stadium that weekend, and millions of their countrymen will follow the tournament on television and online.
Tietjens will be happy at the relatively easy draw his All Blacks have secured as a result of their December victory. That is where this tournament preview begins: with an interesting and unpredictable Pool A.
Pool A: God Defend New Zealand
In past seasons on the IRB Sevens circuit, it would be easy to see New Zealand and England sail through the pool stages of the Wellington Sevens. However, the 2012/13 World Series is truly demonstrating the growth of the global game.
The All Blacks may top the standings, but they will find they are accompanied by the 12th, 13th and 14th-ranked nations in their pool.
England will be absolutely desperate for improvement. True, they are fielding a rather young squad, but with players like Dan Norton there is really no excuse for England to be ranked outside the Top 10 in the world.
England is not the only squad with world-class speedsters. The United States and its YouTube sensation Carlin Isles will be a force to be reckoned with and will target the struggling English in order to secure that all-important top-two finish in the pool.
The Spanish, as a Series debutant, would normally be considered the minnows of this pool, but the squad comes to Wellington just two points shy of England in the table.
Spain actually defeated England 19-13 in the Bowl final of the Gold Coast Sevens in Australia in October, so they will be fancying their chances in a competitive Pool A where anything can happen.
Pool B: Vive La France
It has been awhile since a French Sevens team could claim to be amongst the world's very best, but this year's edition of Les Bleu are New Zealand's closest competition on the IRB circuit.
Behind the outstanding play of star Terry Bouhraoua, France has racked up enough top-six finishes to hold down second place in the Series despite not yet having claimed a Cup victory.
Despite the early-morning shock loss to Canada at the Dubai Sevens, one would like to think that the French are a safe bet to advance in Wellington, which leaves the last Cup-qualifying spot as a battle between Kenya and Argentina.
Only one point separates those two nations, which are ranked sixth and seventh in the world, respectively, so their head-to-head contest may end up being a decisive one.
Rounding out the pool will be another Series newcomer in the form of Tonga. They are fierce competitors but somewhat out of their depth against their more experienced rivals.
On to Pool C—the pool of death!
Pool C: The Pool Of Death
South Africa may be the top-ranked team in this wild and crazy pool, but Samoa are the only ones that can boast a World Series Cup victory this season following their outstanding performance in Dubai.
Canada and Wales met each other in the Plate final of the Dubai Sevens in December after a surprising run by the then under-strength Canadians. Canada claimed wins over France and the United States, along with a draw against Australia, only to drop the Dubai Plate final against a powerful Welsh squad.
The Canadians are bringing a stronger side to Wellington, including World Cup standout Conor Trainor and Glasgow Warriors wing Taylor Paris. With this increased firepower, the Canadians will be keen to pull off some additional upsets in this hotly contested pool.
With so many strong entries, Pool C is likely to defy the analysis of even the sharpest rugby minds.
Pool D, though it has a little less glamour, is almost as difficult to predict.
Pool D: Advance Australia Fair?
As the only member of Pool D to hold a Cup title during the 2012/13 IRB Sevens season, Fiji should be a safe bet to make if comfortably through to the quarterfinals.
They may be the only safe bet.
The other traditional power in this pool, Australia battled valiantly in Dubai and South Africa but have been decimated by injuries and lack of player availability. Whether they will be able to recapture their full potential in Wellington will only be one factor that determines their success—the others go by the names of Scotland and Portugal.
The surprising Portuguese enter Wellington with the second-highest ranking in Pool D. Plate semifinal appearances in both Dubai and South Africa have seen them show enough quality to worry future opponents, while the Scots will be looking to get their IRB Sevens campaign back on track in New Zealand.
Wellington Sevens: In Conclusion
The difficulty of predicting the teams that will advance to the Cup quarterfinals in Wellington is a testament to how fiercely this year's World Series is being contested by all nations, but this is no time to sit on the sidelines.
Bleacher Report is your home for great fan discussion, as well as all of the sports news you can handle.
Give us your thoughts on who will be the teams to watch in Wellington and who will likely walk out with those crucial Series points as Cup Champions.
Jeff Hull is a contributor to Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter by clicking on the link below.