Defending champions Australia face stiff opposition as countries raise their game ahead of qualification for Tokyo 2020
Strong competition in women's Dubai Rugby Sevens expected thanks to Olympic developments
Olympic inclusion is helping transform the landscape of women’s sevens, according to John Menanti, the coach of defending Dubai champions Australia.
This weekend’s Dubai Rugby Sevens marks the start of the qualifying process for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
As hosts, Japan are the only side to have their place assured in the Games in two years’ time. The top four sides on each of the men’s and women’s series at the end of this season will join them, with the remaining places to be decided via various regional tournaments.
If any clues were needed as to the impact Olympic inclusion is already having on the sevens, the standings in the Women’s World Series should provide it.
New Zealand hold the lead, which is perhaps unsurprising given the country’s pedigree in the sport.
Second is the United States, a country with some pedigree in women's sevens, but more significantly an Olympic superpower.
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That maybe a small sample size. The US were runners up in their home competition in Glendale last month, and Dubai is just the second leg on the series.
However, they have been a formidable challenge for some time now, as shown by the fact they were runners up in Dubai 12 months ago, beating New Zealand on the way to that final.
Manenti, who has been elevated to head coach role of the Australia side since Tim Walsh swapped to take over the men’s side, said the women’s game is more competitive than it has ever been.
“The US obviously have a great college programme, good money is invested, but the fact it is an Olympic sport now adds another level to what they want to do,” said Manenti, who was part of the Australia coaching staff when they won gold in Rio in 2016.
“I have seen it with [Great Britain], the last two or three Olympics how successful they have been across the park. They want their sevens team to be part of that.
“England is a traditional rugby country, Canada and USA, not so much. Russia are also working towards something special at the Olympics, and even countries like Spain.
“It has kicked the scope wide open. Three or four years ago, there were three or four teams – Canada, Australia, New Zealand – who were fairly consistently around the top three.
“Now you have seven or eight teams who could win any tournament.”
Sarah Goss, the New Zealand captain, said her side need to improve on their showing in the first leg of the series if they are to return to the podium in Dubai.
“We had limited preparation, so for our girls to perform as well as they did, the coaches were really happy with that,” Goss said.
“We know we have a lot more to improve on and a lot more to do if we want to take out this title in Dubai.”