Starmers: Back to the Wellington cauldron
TV commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith writes his latest blog for irbsevens.com ahead of the fourth round of the HSBC Sevens World Series, the Hertz Sevens in New Zealand's capital, Wellington.
There's never been a situation like it as we head to Wellington and an unprecedented moment amongst the competing nations in the history of IRB Sevens: after three rounds, the top eight countries in the overall standings are within closer touch of the lead than ever before.
There are just 19 points between the joint leaders, Fiji and New Zealand, and the eighth-placed team, Samoa - proof, if it were needed, of the rise and rise in the overall standard and quality of play across the board.
There was a time when New Zealand ruled the roost at the Westpac Stadium, but triumphs by Samoa, England and Fiji in the last five years broke the chain of home advantage - and expectation.
Mind you, New Zealand are the reigning Wellington champions after Declan O'Donnell's tour de force last year! But somehow that aura of invincibility has waned for the nation that has won, incredibly, nine of the previous 12 World Series titles under Gordon Tietjens' guidance.
To a degree that was illustrated by the fact that they lost three games in a row in Dubai and failed to reach a Cup semi final for the first time in two seasons.
In typical fashion they did bounce back immediately to win the next, and most recent, event in Port Elizabeth - England triumphed in Dubai and Fiji in the Gold Coast – but it’s so close behind them and fourth-placed South Africa that any number of sides look poised to break through to the top.
Newly-confident and slick are Wales, World Champions in Sevens but never a World Series tournament winner. They will miss Harry Robinson, whose rapid rise to the Six Nations squad speaks volumes for their Sevens programme, but are sure to be strong again.
Australia are equally youthful, fit and talented, whilst France have risen from the ashes of many past years to look much more accomplished, disciplined, canny and fit than ever before in reaching a first Cup final in seven years in Dubai.
And behind all of them, lest we forget, is the lingering menace of Samoa, overall champions of two seasons ago…
So there are the main contenders, with the challenge also sure to come from the rest – it’s an outcome that is impossible to predict, but there is at least one guarantee: another enthralling, intensive week end in the melting pot of the 'donut'.
Highlights: The Story of the season so far