Fiji chase sevens glory as World Cup lands in San Francisco

Fiji chase sevens glory as World Cup lands in San Francisco

SAN FRANSISCO – Agence France-Presse
Fiji chase sevens glory as World Cup lands in San Francisco

The Rugby World Cup Sevens will break new ground on July 20 when the tournament kicks off in San Francisco with Olympic champion Fiji determined to wreck New Zealand’s aim of becoming the first side to successfully defend the title.

The seventh edition of the 24-team seven-a-side tournament, which is being staged at AT&T Park, home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants, is the first Rugby World Cup event of any kind to be staged in the United States.

The three-day extravaganza is taking place as rugby enjoys a surge in popularity in the United States, buoyed by the success of the men’s sevens team and greater exposure of the sport than ever before.

World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper told AFP in an interview that the tournament, which will be broadcast free-to-air on NBC television, could ultimately prove to be a “game-changer” for rugby in the United States.

“It’s something that can ignite the sport in the US,” Gosper told AFP. “We’re realistic. It’s only three days. And you can’t change the world in three days. But you can light something and create a detonator for greater things later.”

Taking the tournament to uncharted territory could in theory be a risky move.

The last edition of the World Cup Sevens was staged in Moscow in 2013 before swathes of empty seats in the Luzhniki Stadium.

Tournament officials however are confident of a better turnout in California this weekend, one of the traditional hotbeds of American rugby.

A sell-out crowd is expected for July 20’s opening day of action.

The tournament is also unveiling a new single-elimination knockout format.

Unlike most sevens tournaments, which divide teams into round-robin groups before they advance to knockout rounds, this weekend’s tournament will leave teams on a knife-edge from the opening game.

Sixteen teams will face off in a preliminary round for the right to advance to the knockout rounds, where eight seeded teams -- New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, Australia, England, Argentina, Scotland and the United States await.

South Africa’s “BlitzBoks” are seeded in first place after a successful season which saw them defend their World Sevens Series title with victory in the Paris Sevens last month.

However the South Africans have never lifted the World Cup crown, with their sole appearance in the final coming in a memorable 24-21 defeat to a Waisale Serevi-inspired Fiji in the 1997 final in Hong Kong.

Yet while the South Africans are top seeds, the smart money is on Fiji to capture its third crown after wins in 1997 and 2005.

The 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist has named a formidable squad which contains France-based stars Semi Radradra and European Player of the Year Leone Nakarawa.

Holder New Zealand meanwhile has only two survivors from its win in Moscow five years ago, captain Tim Mikkelson and Kurt Baker.

Joe Ravouvou will be the main attacking threat for the New Zealanders, who are undaunted by the challenge of attempting to become the first team in World Cup Sevens history to win consecutive titles.