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Sevens wonders of the world

Whatever gulf there may be, as discussed last week, is soon to become a moot point as other factors come into play in the final push for the Super Rugby playoffs…..more on that shortly, but first congratulations where it is due.

After four years of playing the bridesmaid, the Blitz Boks have claimed the World Sevens series crown, a title they always looked good to win after their emphatic victory in Dubai.

We’ve seen plenty of great sevens teams over the years. Fiji have had several of them, and New Zealand a few too, none better than in 1996 when Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu, Eric Rush and co were tearing it up in Hong Kong.

But I doubt there has ever been a better balanced sevens team than this South African model. A mix of good hard-working, direct-running, ball-winning forwards, options of three or four excellent play makers, and outstanding finishers. Experience, power, skill, pace and plenty of smarts.

They have gone from strength to strength under Neil Powell, and from what I have seen of them they are a well-bonded unit, who revel in each others company.

Even the departures of Kwagga Smith and Seabelo Senatla, and injuries to other key players at various times, couldn’t blunt the side.

For all of those reasons, they have presented a very positive face for South African rugby, so take a bow.

Of the rest, Fiji, still basking a little too much in Olympic glory and inclined to play the bully, always seemed susceptible to that off-game that can ruin a tournament, England were good for the most part but looking a bit aged, while New Zealand struggled throughout, and their fourth placing overall is a fair reflection of where they’re at and of the lip service paid to the sevens game by NZR. Scotland again came on strong towards the end, and played some awesome rugby throughout the series.

Kwagga Smith may no longer be part of the Sevens programme, but he would have been celebrating nonetheless after his old team claimed the Sevens crown and he himself gave his new team a massive booster in their push for pole position for the Super Rugby knockout phase.

When he collected a pass 63 metres out from the goal-line, the Brumbies must have thought they had him covered, but showing real gas and trademark determination he outflanked a disbelieving defence to score the most important try of the season for his team.

They didn’t play very well in Canberra, a lot of teams don’t. But a combination of the Brumbies ineffective attack, and their own resilience, saw the Lions came away with a priceless win that has them poised, like the runner tucked just in behind the outside shoulder of the leader in a 1500 metre race with the bell sounding for the last lap.

The heat is all on that front runner now, because the threats are multiple.

Whereas the Lions go home to a run of games they should win, with the possible exception of the last one in Durban, the Crusaders face the Chiefs in Suva, the Rebels in Melbourne, the Highlanders at home and the Hurricanes in Wellington.

Throw in the side-effects of the Lions tour, and the perennial threat of injuries and there are a lot of reasons for the front runners to keep glancing over their shoulder.

I do think this is a Crusaders team with the capability to handle all that, but only time will tell. It will be fascinating to watch.

Right now a Lions Crusaders final would surely be the one most likely, but the Stormers, Sharks and the four other New Zealand teams are all capable of the one-off performance needed to upset a higher ranked team.

And of course there are still five Australian teams with a mathematical chance of gaining a home quarterfinal, which seems quite absurd, but the home quarterfinal advantage for conference winners is exactly what South Africa and Australia demanded, and so we live with it….for now.

Match of the weekend was in Christchurch, where the Crusaders used their set piece power and stifling defence to blunt the lethal Hurricanes attack. It was not your typical Kiwi derby, with just one try, and it was made tougher by a heavy dew on the surface, but it was still enthralling to watch.

If the Crusaders can do that to the Hurricanes, and if they can keep winning through that degree of control they will be hard to beat, no matter where they end up playing.

The Blues and Highlanders also kept themselves in the mix with wins over South African opposition.

The Cheetahs are a side that have to score a lot of points to win a game, and they will never stop trying to do that, which always makes them fun to watch. But unless they are up by about 20 with three minutes to play they are never safe because their defence ranges from suspect to non-existent.

The Blues have now not lost a game against an overseas team in a full year, although that will be put to the test well and truly this weekend when they fly into South Africa for one match against the Stormers, a fairly brutal turnaround.

The Highlanders, for the second week running, looked gone for all money in Pretoria, only to have the game handed back to them by an act of generous stupidity.

In dreadful conditions that negated any attempts to play constructive rugby, the Bulls managed to level the scores, a tad fortuitous in that a subsequent replay suggested Warrick Gelant may not have cleanly forced the ball. It might well have been confirmed anyway by the TMO, but it should have been referred.

Things got worse for the Highlanders when Waisake Naholo was sent off. One replay suggested he was merely bracing for impact, but it looked worse on another angle and out came the red. Either way he got in a bad position, putting himself and an opponent at risk and he will miss the Force game this weekend.

So the Bulls had a gilt-edged opportunity for a rare win, only to have the go-ahead, and probably decisive try reversed when RG Snyman forgot there was a match to be won and charged shoulder first into a ruck, collecting Greg, Pleasants, Tate and the hyphen smack in the face. Game Over.

The Highlanders are capable of scoring no matter how many players they do or don’t have on the field, and Malakai Fekitoa, who seems to reserve some of his best deeds for the fields of South Africa, palmed off a rather woeful tackle attempt and powered away for another last-gasp Highlanders winner.

In Australia the on-field action is being overshadowed by the happenings off it, but a win by the Reds over the lowly Rebels, and the Force beating the Jaguares in Buenos Aires amounted to a comparatively successful weekend.

The Force were good, played really well, but the Jaguares were bitterly disappointing. They’ve been given a great opportunity in Super Rugby, and you can only hope it is not just a means to employ and prepare a test team.

It was a result that would have caused relief for Sharks fans after they were upset in a rousing game by the Kings. The Kings have come on really well and have now won three straight, but the Sharks will need to be more consistent if they are to challenge those front runners.

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