World Rugby Sevens Series: New Season, New Coaches, New Winner?


It’s another season of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. The 2016/17 season promises to be breaking new grounds with new audiences and countries watching the television broadcast. The ten tournament Sevens Series begins with the Dubai Sevens on December 2-4.

Olympic Champions and two-time sevens series champions Fiji are chasing their triple crown this season. As they will be without master coach Ben Ryan, will a new season see new challenges for the series title? It will be an electric start to the new season at the Dubai Sevens.

New Season, New Coaches, New Winner?

This new season offers many teams many new reasons to match the best in the game. Some will have learned from past mistakes, and will have worked hard off-season to build for the future. The sevens game is here to stay and will continue to evolve and grow. No longer a ‘toss the ball around’ game, it is now a professional environment, with high levels of physical endurance.

How teams and individual Unions respond to that, will be seen throughout this season. Most have invested many millions to reach core status, so the gains are obvious. For others, it is a developing goal for the nation–looking now toward the Commonwealth Games and then Olympics.

Many changes have been made, with new players coming in, new coaches signed and bright new ideas. Some have taken the ‘leap of faith’ and most will reap the rewards of an off-season readying themselves for Dubai to begin on Thursday [Women] and Friday [for the Men].

New Coaches named for leading sides

Starting with the defending champions Fiji, who have roped in former Welsh and Hong Kong coach Gareth Barber. He is taking on one of the most difficult jobs in the all of Sevens coaching, to guide the naturally gifted island boys. It will be a test for this well like coach.

Not only are they talented, but the talent pool is so abundant you might choke yourself choosing just one team. As some of the best exponents of the game ‘who do you leave out’ is going to be a major key to success. It’s like coaching the Brazilian football team.

He also has big shoes to fill, as he is replacing a ‘master coach’ in Ben Ryan. Not only are they the Olympic champions, but are the back-to-back winners of the WRSS title too. Ryan is now a legend in Fiji, so can Barber attain that same status? For him, only time will tell, and he must get off to a flying start to not be pulled down by any early criticism or comparison.

Laidlaw first expatriate Kiwi sevens coach

His name will be new to many sevens fans, but he has been around the New Zealand team environment. One of those unsung heroes that you will only meet as a player within that team. A behind the scenes assistant coach and analyst, the ex-Scotland player helped to set-up the current Bay of Plenty training base. Not only does he know the Kiwi system, he will be up for the challenge.

Clark Laidlaw has big shoes to fill. Expectations are high, as Kiwis will demand consistency, improvement on the last tow years and a quick flight ‘back to the top’. That is designed to happen, however their new mentor will only be available after he has fulfilled his contract with London Irish.

Personally; from this writer, I can’t predict how he will fair but his credentials are cut above the rest. Will that get the desired results? Only time will tell, as he steps into the role proper in June–Tomasi Cama and Scott Waldrom named interim coaches (see further down).

Familiar names take on new head coaching roles

Innocent Simiyu replaces Ayimba for Kenya

Innocent Simiyu takes over from Benjamin Ayimba for the Kenyan side. It is a future driven step, however the ongoing strike by players could see them lose their spot in the series if they do not turn up in Dubai this weekend [follow LWOR for updates on this story].

Consistency and lack of belief has always been their Achilles heel, so Simiyu must bring a confidence to the Kenyan team. Will their fortunes change this season? Only the players can determine that, but they fans worldwide, so support will not be the issue in 2016/17.

McGrath goes from the warm Islands to cold Canada

Englishman Damian McGrath has traded his island-stint with Samoa; after he was fired after not reaching the Olympic Games, for the more ‘at home’ Canadian weather.

McGrath will take over from Liam Middleton, who followers won’t judge harshly. He didn’t have the team he wanted all season last year, as injuries took it’s toll. Maybe, it would have been different if they were fit–well ‘that is another story’.

The Maple Leafs must get a good start to have any chance. They must not be any teams ‘door mat’ as they have the talent, with John Moonlight as captain. Their future could be a lot brighter if they get off to a winning start.

Karauna takes over from the incumbent Sesekawa 

The returning Japanese teams have named former Kiwi kingpin Damien Karauna as their new head coach for this season. He has lot’s of experience from playing and coaching in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

Will we see a more Island-style rugby fusion again? Along with the Japanese aggression and determination, it could be a beautiful combination to take this side well into contention.

Interim Coaches for Fiji, Samoa and New Zealand

Cawanibuka Interim coach for Fiji in Dubai/Cape Town

Fiji’s strength and conditioning coach Naca Cawanibuka will be the interim coach for Fiji in the opening two tournaments of the series, as Gareth Barber will be available only from January.

Cawanibuka is a former sevens rep for Fiji, with a good eye for rugby development. He knows and reads the game well, and successfully led Fiji in winning the Oceania Sevens two weeks ago. He was also responsible for Fiji being the team that had the least number of injuries last season–something that troubled New Zealand especially.

Titjens to lead Samoa from Wellington leg on

Sir Gordoin Tietjens is the most successful coach in WRSS history. He has won everything in sevens rugby except for an Olympic Gold medal. He stepped down from his role with the Kiwis, but is not done yet in the game he loves. After the New Year, he takes the reigns fully with Samoa.

Tietjens assistant is Stephen Betham, who himself won the WRSS title with Samoa in 2009/10. Together they will build a team that the world will take notice of. Very much like Fiji–built with little resources. Betham will lead the team to Dubai and Cape Town.

The future looks bright for Samoa on paper. Although, saying that, it is on game day where the real outcome unfolds. The Manu have folded at times, so if Tietjens can build in a self-belief, then Paris might be repeated more than once on the Sevens Series circuit.

Cama and Waldrom to lead the Kiwis until June

Former Kiwi sevens stalwarts Tomasi Cama and Scott Waldrom will be interim coaches for the New Zealand team for the entire 2016/17 series. In their dual-role, each will bring strengths gained during the Tietjens era, and from their successful provincial/club level.

Cama and Waldrom bring with them years of experience in sevens rugby, and now each has stepped into the coaching and mentor roles. Even with that strong background and enthusiasm, how it transforms into the field will be the key. Yes, they know the system–it’s how they execute it, that will count on the points ladder.

Will We Have a New Series Winner?

On paper, the South Africans are the best bet under established coach Neil Powell. They are the team to beat, as they have their core team from last season are had a good start last season here [Dubai] and then on to Cape Town next weekend.

On the other hand, the Argentinians too have the same team; like the United States, Kenya and England sides do. The Great Britain side could not proceed to the final in Brazil, but were a handful with their English soul. However, don’t count out the Oceania boys–Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and of course, Fiji.

Many see the game as a progression of the national team, so look out for Japan and France to create upsets over the series. Japan will feed off the 2015 RWC success, and the French game is becoming stronger (as seen on Saturday against the All Blacks). That applies to with Canada and Russia–the Bears did amazingly well in 2015 here at The Sevens Stadium.

Meanwhile, If there are any teams that may surprise in a cameo role in the series, it is the Irish and Spanish sides. If opposition do not pay them respect (especially Spain) they might well ‘throw out a leg’ to trip up bigger teams. A by-product of the Olympic qualification tournaments, is that sides like these who are given a chance, that will make the game truly Global.


December 1-4 2016. The Sevens Stadium, Dubai

Follow all the updates and results of the Dubai Sevens here on LWOR with Scott Hornell and Jovilisi Waqa.

“Main photo credit”