IRB Women's Sevens: Last Call in Amsterdam
The International Rugby Board's (IRB) Women's Sevens Series will soon arrive in Amsterdam for the fourth and final leg of the 2012/13 season.
It is clear by now that New Zealand—in their first year back in international competition after a brief hiatus—is set to claim the inaugural series title. With 54 series points and an eight-point lead over their English rivals, the New Zealand women would have to place fifth or lower in Amsterdam in order to surrender their claim to the championship trophy—an outcome that, at this point, seems highly unlikely.
The Sevens version of the Black Ferns has been impressive this year, upholding the high standard put forward by New Zealand teams in all corners of the rugby world.
In addition to the All Blacks claiming victory on home soil during the 2011 men's World Cup, the fifteens version of the Black Ferns have won the last four women's world cups. The women's sevens program would themselves be able to claim the title of defending world champions had they not lost a sudden-death decider to Australia at the 2009 Sevens World Cup in Dubai.
Now, with only one IRB sanctioned event left prior to 2013 Sevens World Cup in Moscow, one would think that the New Zealand women are ready to set the record straight. But things in the realm of the women's sevens game are not as simple as they appear.
Teams like England and Canada, either by choice or due to injuries, have not been able to field their strongest teams consistently throughout this year's tour. Indeed, when England was able to field their top talent during the IRB tournament in Houston, they looked thoroughly dominant.
Other series newcomers, such as Russia, have also been able to fight New Zealand to a draw on occasion, thus lending an unpredictable element to this final chapter of the women's season.
So, as the inaugural Women's World Series moves to its close in the Netherlands, New Zealand may well have done enough to claim the Series title, but there are others in the rugby world who will be looking to use this tournament to make their own intentions known heading into the World Cup in June.
With all that in mind, let's break down the pools at this year's Amsterdam Sevens in order to see where New Zealand's biggest challenge may come from.
To Pool A we go...
Pool A: Can New Zealand Answer The Bell?
The Netherlands, hosts of the last stop on the first-ever women's World Series, were leaders in the sport long before it entered the mainstream. The Amsterdam Sevens has long been recognized as one of the premier events in all of women's rugby, and its elevation to a place on the IRB circuit was a coup for the Dutch women.
Sadly, the Dutch have been overpowered by the top teams on the series this season, but if ever they were going to make a strong push for an upset, their home tournament would be just the time and place to do it.
New Zealand will arrive in the Netherlands with a nearly unassailable lead in the IRB standings, but with only one major tournament left prior to the World Cup in Moscow, they won't want to surrender the high ground.
Russia, the hosts of the 2013 Sevens World Cup, have proven to be one of the more aggressive and physical teams on the circuit. As a non-core team, the Russians have surprised everyone this season by fighting the some of the best teams in the world to a standstill. They will be seeking to claim more impressive scalps before the world makes its way to Moscow in a few months' time.
Rounding out Pool A will be the Chinese, who, although an ever-improving side, will not have the firepower to compete with the three heavyweights they will play in the opening rounds.
All things considered, Pool A promises to be a gruelling experience for its four occupants. Of the three top-ranked sides in this pool, the one that reaches the playoff round with the best draw and with the fewest injuries will have a legitimate chance at the top of the podium.
On to a Pool B that promises to be just as combative.
Pool B: Can Canada Defend Their Title?
Amsterdam may be home ground for the Dutch, but it has been a magic place for captain Jenn Kish and her Canadian teammates. The Canadians have won the last two tournaments in Amsterdam, with last year's win coming in a thrilling last-minute victory over the United States.
Video from last year's Grand Final has been included for your viewing pleasure.
Canada have struggled to find their form and have suffered with injuries this season; however, head coach John Tait is sure to have his strongest side ready for the final series event.
The Canadians will arrive in Amsterdam with a disappointing fifth-place ranking in the table but could easily finish the season in third position with a strong showing.
Meeting the Canadians head on will be the fearsome forms of the English women's sevens team, a squad which has also been forced to play below strength for part of the this season.
England currently sit eight points back of series leaders New Zealand and have a tournament victory already under the belts this year. If England can muster the likes of their superstar, Heather Fisher, for the Amsterdam tournament, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Canada and England have enjoyed some ferocious battles over the years, so with both teams near full-strength, this pool is likely to produce a fearsome clash.
Another squad with big dreams hails from South Africa. The Lady Springboks have a second-place finish in Dubai to their credit this season and, on their day, they can cause trouble for any of the series leaders.
Where Pool A had China as a weak link, Pool B features France, another non-core team. However, the French are hardly newcomers to the world of women's Sevens and enjoy a high standard of European competition on a regular basis. As an underdog, they represent a much larger threat than their Chinese counterparts.
The fact that a team like France must endure non-core status says something about the standard of play, which continues to improve amongst women's teams across the globe.
As we will see from Pool C, in this tournament, there is no safe place to hide.
Pool C: Where The Eagles Fly?
Had it not been for an incredible comeback by Canada at last year's Amsterdam Sevens, USA head coach Ric Suggitt's squad would certainly be returning to Holland as the reigning champions. Now that the tournament has been sanctioned by the IRB as part of the women's World Series, the USA will be trying complete some unfinished business in 2013.
It will be no easy task.
Standing in their way will be two very strong entries in the forms of Spain and the defending World Cup Champions from Australia.
The Americans (fourth) and Aussies (third) both occupy places near the top of the series standings, so in theory, Spain (ninth) should be an easy target for both; but the Spanish will not be intimidated. In their only other appearance on the circuit this season, Spain pulled off a third-place finish in Dubai—a result the other teams in Pool C would do well to remember.
Bringing up the rear in this pool will be Brazil, hosts of the first-ever Olympic rugby sevens tournament in 2016.
Sadly, the Brazilians, while athletic and talented, have not been able to mount a serious challenge against any of the established Series teams; Amsterdam will be no exception.
Unlike the men's tour, where only the top two teams from each pool advance to the Cup round, it is possible on the women's tour to finish third in a pool and still advance.
This exclusive Bleacher Report preview will also give you predictions on who will make the cut to the playoff round.
Day 2 Predictions
Day 2 in Amsterdam will see teams re-seeded based on their records from pool competition on Day 1.
Of the teams that finish third in the respective pools, most likely having won one game each, only the two with the best scoring differential will advance.
Teams in both Pool A and Pool C will have had the opportunity to run up large scores against relatively weak opposition in the forms of China and Brazil. Sadly for the occupants of Pool B, this means only two of their members are likely to advance.
The unfortunate South Africans are picked in these predictions to finish third in Pool B and therefore will miss out on the Cup competition.
Anyone who has seen an IRB Women's World Series tournament live and in person would surely agree that making predictions beyond those that have been listed below would be a reckless endeavour.
Whatever the outcome in Amsterdam, New Zealand—as has been previously stated—are likely to retain their series lead and therefore the series title.
Which team goes into the World Cup with the form necessary to win, however, is what the true story of the Amsterdam Sevens is likely to be about.
Cup Quarter-Final Predictions After Day 1:
1. New Zealand (3 - 0) vs. 8. Spain (1 - 3)
2. England (3 - 0) vs. 7. Netherlands (1 - 3)
3. United Stated (3 - 0) vs. 6. Russia (2 - 1)
4. Canada (2 - 1) vs. 4. Australia (2 - 1)
Amsterdam Sevens Preview: Conclusion
The first-ever IRB Women's World Series, even with its drawbacks, must surely be seen as a success.
Representatives from the offices of the IRB told Bleacher Report there are plans afoot to address the expansion of the Series in the future.
No firm decision has yet been made on what the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series will look like next season. There are general plans for expansion of the Series, but at this stage those plans have not been finalized. A full review of the inaugural Series will be taken after the last round in Amsterdam, so once that review has been carried out, we will be able to plan in detail for next season.
Teams like Spain, France, Russia and South Africa, which haven't competed at every stop on the IRB tour this season, have surely earned the right to be added as a core team next year. Their elevation would be good for the game and would force the expansion of each tournament to accommodate 16 teams, similar to the men's tour.
We leave you with a video highlighting some of the biggest plays from the last IRB women's event in China.
For those that have found cause to argue with this analysis or these predictions, the floor now belongs to you.
Bleacher Report is your home for great discussion and debate, along with all of the sports news you can handle.
The final stop on the 2012/13 IRB Women's Sevens Series begins on May 17 in Amsterdam.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations were obtained firsthand.
Follow the author on Twitter @RugbyScribe