World Rugby ambassador and TV commentator Rob Vickerman previews what looks set to be a stunning HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2016-17.
Firstly Rob, there have been a few coaching changes in the off season. Let's start with newly promoted Japan and their new head coach Damian Karauna, the former assistant coach of New Zealand.
If you take the fundamental way that New Zealand play, and their values as a team, and implement it to a team as keen to learn as Japan are, with as much investment, with as much happening, that is an unbelievable combination. When you see the New Zealand teams behind the scenes it’s often him leading the charge, leading the troops, understanding the players, he’s a very personable coach. We see him integrated. That is an invaluable asset to have. While I understand Titch (Gordon Tietjens) had this mantra and this aura about him, at the same time you really need people like that that lead the change. So that’s a really, really astute signing and a clever signing. A lot of people went for that job.
There’s a slight irony there obviously if you look at the Olympic Games, they beat New Zealand when he was assistant coach. Did he see the potential of Japan in Rio?
Yeah, exactly that. You know, when you look for coaching opportunities as Ben Ryan did before he moved to Fiji you look for potential, you think about where you can get them with what you truly believe in so once you’ve got your coaching philosophy in place, which he clearly has being in that New Zealand set-up for as long as he has been, it’s a pretty formidable thing. He’s an ex-player as well which helps.
With Tietjens heading out we weren’t sure where he was going to go after such a massive legacy. He’s the most successful coach ever in sevens and then Samoa announce him as their head coach. Your thoughts on that move?
Perhaps the most amazing news about that is that he’s only 60! In typical Titch fashion he threw a dummy, got the whole world believing he was going to Kenya, and ended up going to Samoa. Again, in terms of the signing it's very, very interesting. I would say if you install the type of mindset that the New Zealanders have with the Samoan physicality, they are set to be formidable at the breakdown and play a power game.
What they haven’t got is the depth New Zealand had. Once you kind of get through the first few players, really understanding the way Titch wants to play, then you’ve got to implement a next generation coming through. My fear is, certainly the way Titch trains people, that his style might well turn off a lot of the Samoans. Inherently that degree of work-rate isn’t associated with the Samoan style of play. But, ultimately, if he gets them there then it’s going to be a massive win.
Is there, across the board, a need for improvement with Samoa? They won in Paris earlier in the year and looked to show glimpses of their former series-winning form.
There's a massive need. Weirdly around the time they got to the high performance centre, they went down the pan. When actually thinking about how they played previously, obviously the 2009 series where they were phenomenal, they basically won a series on having an incredible restart. They had one or two individuals and, albeit, again it was a power game, you couldn’t get near them. What they’ve done since is really try and get away from that power base game and other than (Falemiga) Selesele they haven’t really got that power base player. They’re not short of them, you look at their genetics, they’re going to make more of them. The people I want to see are the ones in the middle of the pitch. You know, Phoenix Hunapo-Nofoa, get him in the middle, get him really doing all of those things that really no one else can do.
Do you think that Hunapo-Nofoa is a key player for Samoa?
He is. He is incredible. When you watch him he is a one man highlight real. He’s got flaws, of course he has, and that’s why he needs a good team around him. But you look on a world circuit that’s more competitive than it ever has been before, you need to have people that can make those impacts, that do those things in the middle that people feed off.
Let's look at Canada. A new coach in Damian McGrath. Are there improvements needed?
Massive improvements needed. I mean, I watched them closely in Monaco, walking off the pitch and to me they were a team who had lost their self-belief. No belief in their systems, no understanding of coach, player, a lot of frustration coming through so it’s sad because, again, going back to the 2009 series, they started having seeds of growth that really came to the fore in 2010 and has just not progressed in a long time since. They’re not really getting any better. Let’s make no bones about it, they’ve got a lot of investments in place. They are one of the few development teams that have really kicked in with investment but massively underperformed for many, many years.
Again, in terms of coaching with Damian McGrath, who I know well, that's an interesting combination. Damian’s a massive believer on three principles of coaching. He looks no further than catch, grip and pass. If you start incorporating those bits, get that bit of education coming through, then there’s scope and hope. I fear that there’s not that breadth of quality of players though. Once they did have that coming through but now 15s has had its input. They need to keep the likes of Conor Trainor going, keep John Moonlight flying which he has been. If you put people like Adam Zaruba, put those types of players in, that is a very unique product. Build your team around the big men, they’ve got a plethora of them, and then from that you add the pace.
A quick word on the USA. How do they approach the series?
You can’t not be disappointed if you’re a USA rugby supporter. The talk about how their online and TV reach during the Rugby World Cup and during the Olympics has been phenomenal. The Olympics for them was a massive disappointment, especially coming down to the last kick. That, again, would have been a long time for them coming into it. They know that this is a massive year for them because you can’t just keep on getting this promising tag for long. They need to start competing consistently at a high level, making Cup semi-finals and knocking over the top teams. I think they can do that.
They’re one of those teams that thrive on the fact that Dubai has so much preparation time whereas other nations, certainly England because they get no rugby, don’t do as well in their first couple of games. USA, they’re going to fly into it. They’ve got so much balance in their team, they’ve got the big men, they’ve got the fast men, they’ve got the link players, they’ve got the skill sets. Now it’s time to convert and I think they’re going to be at the business end of a few tournaments this year.
From your experience, is Dubai very much the kick-starter for the series? How much of an effect does it have mentally if you don’t perform at Dubai?
It’s a really interesting position to be in, Dubai. I experienced this from having it as the first tournament in three years and actually the second tournament for two years when they started doing the Gold Coast first. It's the hardest tournament to get ready for because you are so ready to play. You’ve spent basically 12-15 weeks preparation. Some teams, luckily, the Oceania teams have managed to get that rugby under the belt. But, ultimately, it’s been a long time since the Olympics. All the players have been wanting to do is get out and play and they’ve not been able to do it so in terms of preparing for it you place a lot on it, which means certain things happen in the first few minutes. You get excited, you get over excited which is a strange position to be in on a rugby pitch because very quickly the fatigue kicks in and then errors start coming in.
The first game is very much a settler but after that you get into the swing of it. Dubai is one of the best events to play at, it's incredible, one of the best environments certainly as an Englishmen with the ex-pats driving that forward. A real partisan atmosphere. It’s great because you’ve got the really sociable tournament at the same time so lots of buzz, lots of environment, and one you definitely want to nail. It is massively important for the series because you look at teams that have done well in that traditionally they set a marker for the rest of the year but it’s so competitive now every tournament is stand alone.