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22 April 2024

'Things have changed'

South Africa Sevens captain Mpho Mbiyoza, front, celebrates with his team after winning the IRB Sevens tournament here in November. (DENNIS B MALLARI)

By Ahmad Lala

In five days time Dubai will host the IRB Rugby World Cup Sevens and the excitement has started building in the emirate as the stars of the show arrive in town.

The three-day tournament is due to take place at the Sevens Ground from Thursday and will feature 24-teams battling it out for the Melrose Cup. Sixteen female sides will also take part in the inaugural women's edition.

South Africa enter the tournament as favourites after a dream start to the 2008-09 IRB Sevens World Series. The Springboks won in Dubai last November, repeated the trick on home soil in George a week later and are currently the joint leaders with England.

"Before the series started if someone had said you could be No1 after four rounds, we would have taken it," said Springbok coach Paul Treu, on the phone from South Africa ahead of his team's arrival tomorrow. "It was a phenomenal and unexpected start for us to win in Dubai and then in our home tournament for the first time ever."

Since then England and Argentina have won the next two legs in Wellington and San Diego respectively – evidence enough for Treu to refute his side's 'favourite' tag.

"I think it's going to be a very competitive World Cup," predicts the 37-year-old.

"You saw in Wellington and San Diego how well some of the emerging countries played and, all the big teams were beaten.

"The fact that we won in Dubai and George does not mean we will do well. I think teams have stepped up their preparations and have used the last two tournaments to fine-tune their tactics.

"A lot of things have changed since we have won here. Seeing England win a tournament, seeing Argentina win a tournament – I think the World Cup is going to be very open."

New Zealand, winners of eight of the past nine Sevens Series, are the other strong contenders this week and, unlike South Africa, Gordon Tietjens' team will be able to call upon Super 14 stars to boost their squad.

Fiji, who have fired legendary Waisale Serevi from their coaching staff this month, will also be bringing a more than capable team to defend their World Cup title.

England though, have been the surprise team this season. Besides the Wellington win – their maiden tournament victory on the circuit – they reached the finals in Dubai and San Diego.

They are neck-and-neck with South Africa on 60 points at the top of the standings, eight points clear of third-placed New Zealand.

"England are working very hard and have played competitively in Dubai and George," said Treu, whose side beat the British team 19-12 last November.

"It took Ben Ryan [the England coach] time to settle in the job, but he has now identified a bunch of youngsters who are willing to put their bodies on the line for the team.

"They have a good management as well, very professional guys. Their team want to do well and you can see it in the way they have played in the past two tournaments.

"The guys are willing to play for each other and I can see the almost identical approach or mentality in their team now that was in ours when we won in Dubai and George. They are getting the rewards for their hard work."

South Africa are the rugby world champions in the 15s game, a title they won in 2007. If they should lift the Cup on March 7, they will be the first country to simultaneously hold both of rugby's showpiece titles.

However, Treu cuts short the sentimentality. "I don't think we need any more motivation and I'm sure the guys will step up regardless," he says.

Ahead of the 2007 tournament, then Springbok coach Jake White claimed the key to winning in France was to have a great defence. And, although there is a vast difference in styles between the two formats, Treu believes the same philosophy will apply here.

"Definitely defence! If you look at the scores from the World Cups since 1993, they have all been all close – except for 2001 when Jonu Lomu was in the team for New Zealand and he just ran through everybody.

"One mistake is going to cost you and so defence, which was the key 16 years ago, will still be the key fact or to winning this week."

- Look out for our exclusive guide to 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in tomorrow's issue

Paul treu's ones to watch

We try to move away from individual players, but I think Gio Aplon and Ryno Benjamin are going to do well. They are two very exciting talents for South Africa.

From the opposition teams; Michael Young, the England scrumhalf, pictured, has been the key factor in the rise of their fortunes this season.

Dj Forbes will be crucial for the New Zealand World Cup campaign, while Argentina's Santiago Gomez Cora is the leading try scorer of all time and, it is not hard to see why when you watch him play.