Olympic Men’s Sevens Preview: Pool B

Date published: August 8 2016

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Medal contenders Australia and South Africa will go head-to-head in Rio with France and Spain making up Pool B.

AUSTRALIA

Having missed out on the top four places in the 2014/2015 Sevens World Series, when they finished fifth, Australia booked their ticket to Rio last year at the 2015 Oceania Sevens Championship, comfortably defeating Tonga 50-0 to qualify for the Olympics. Overcoming that disappointment well, they responded with an improved Series run in 2015/2016.

Back-to-back final losses, first on home soil to New Zealand and then in Las Vegas to Fiji, were unfortunate but overall Australia showed good consistency, their worst result only coming at the end of the Series in London when they were defeated in the Bowl by Wales, propelled along throughout by the experienced figure of James Stannard and his 218 points.

Head coach Andy Friend will have drilled into his side that a golden chance awaits them to advance into the knockout stages with the fixture against South Africa set to be one of the best in the pool stages. Captain Ed Jenkins has a major role to play in that regard, having been one the most consistent operators for Australia in recent years.

The loss of Pama Fou back in June to knee reconstruction surgery was a major blow for Australia but the likes of Con Foley, Lewis Holland and Cameron Clark are all more than capable of finding their way through defenders to the line. For that reason Australia may prove to be one of the dark horses.

Player to Watch: Henry Hutchison

The remarkable 19-year-old is the future of Australian Sevens, bursting onto the scene this season and scoring a very impressive 27 tries in 39 matches for his country so far at a points average of 3.46 per game. Rio seems the perfect stage for him to go from rising youngster in the sport to superstar.


FRANCE

The wait for France to become a major contender in Sevens continues after another underwhelming Sevens World Series when they finished again in 11th place for the second season running. In fact, France's best-ever finish is seventh place, which they last achieved way back in 2006.

Little therefore is expected in Rio but that's not to say that France are lacking for talent. Terry Bouhraoua has produced countless moments of genius over the years for this side and he will be ably supported in Rio by a cast that includes Steeve Barry, Julien Candelon and the powerful Virimi Vakatawa.

After failing to qualify through the 2014/2015 Series, France booked their spot in the Olympics by winning the 2015 Rugby Europe Men's Sevens Championships, emerging on top after their three-leg series which took place in Moscow, Lyon and Exeter, in which they triumphed at all three events.

To cause an upset in Pool B would require something very special but being regarded as outsiders in Pool B you sense will suit them just fine, with their match-up against Australia one contest in particular to look out for. Cup semi-final appearances in Cape Town and Paris during the last series prove they are capable of causing an upset.

Player to Watch: Virimi Vakatawa 

The France XVs international winger impressed so much on the Sevens circuit at the end of last year that he ended up being called into the first international squad by Guy Novès ahead of the Six Nations. Packing plenty of power but also speed, Vakatawa finished the Series with 24 tries overall.


SOUTH AFRICA

The Blitzbokke secured just one title in the 2015/2016 Series, on home soil last December in Cape Town, but were constant threats across the length of the competition, appearing in the final on four occasions. Three of those clashes however ended in defeat, losing to New Zealand in Wellington and Canada before their bid to clinch the title in London fell short after defeat to surprise Cup winners Scotland.

Much like rivals Australia, South Africa head coach Neil Powell explored the possibility of including several players from the XV-man version of the game into his squad with two ultimately making the cut in Cheslin Kolbe and Juan de Jongh. Francois Hougaard too has travelled as a reserve, although Bryan Habana missed out.

Few squads in Rio feel more balanced than South Africa, combining those XVs players with hugely experienced veterans in the shape of Kyle Brown, Werner Kok and Cecil Afrika, plus the finishing of Seabelo Senatla and Rosko Specman. Put simply, in terms of personnel there appears to be very little missing.

But what the Blitzbokke do lack is a winning edge when compared up against New Zealand and Fiji, having won just one World Series title back in 2008/2009 before finishing as runners-up in the last five meetings out of six. Shifting that run of luck isn't easy, but South Africa will be hoping that a change in fortune is due in Rio. Strong contenders for a silver medal.

Player to Watch: Seabelo Senatla

Springbok head coach Allister Coetzee will be watching how Senatla fares in Rio very closely ahead of the Rugby Championship, if his words the other week about potentially selecting the flyer at Test level are to be believed. But it's not hard to see why he's interested – Senatla was the top try scorer in the recent series by a country mile with 66. Huge threat.


SPAIN

The best story out of the qualification process for Rio was the remarkable defeat of Samoa by Spain back in June in Monaco, which the Spanish players unsurprisingly showing plenty emotion at causing a momentous upset to book their ticket to Rio. The 22-19 win confirmed Spain's spot as the last side to qualify for the Olympics.

Spain haven't appeared on the Sevens World Series circuit since they were relegated at the end of the 2013/2014 season, and one of their most memorable triumphs came the season before that when they defeated England to win the Bowl at the Gold Coast Sevens. 

Participating in the Olympics for Spain and their long-term captain Pablo Feijoo is about far more than just the event, but also about growing the sport back home, as he recently told us in an interview. How he and coach Igancio Inchausti would love to produce a major surprise though in Pool B.

“I think there is going to be an explosion of participation in Sevens, especially for those small nations. The Olympics are going to bring us closer to millions of people, showing to them a dynamic sport, full of strength, skills and easy to watch.”

Player to Watch: César Sempere

Now 32, Sempere in the past played for Premiership club Northampton Saints, having also briefly spent time in France with Top 14 giants Montpellier. Offering plenty of experience, Sempere will also be one of Spain's best attackers when given plenty of space to work with, and should prove to be a constant threat.

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