SVNS season preview: Rugby stars flock to sevens as Paris Olympics loom

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SVNS season preview: Rugby stars flock to sevens as Paris Olympics loom
French superstar Antoine Dupont will join the sevens circuit in the new year
French superstar Antoine Dupont will join the sevens circuit in the new year
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With the Paris Olympics only half a year away, some of rugby union’s biggest stars are making the move over to the sevens circuit for the 2023/24 season and the action kicks off in Dubai this weekend!

Let’s get one thing out of the way, rugby sevens’ top-tier competition is no longer called the 'HSBC Sevens Series' but has been rebranded as 'HSBC SVNS'.

That’s right, the competition has undergone a pretty sizeable makeover - it’s colourful, it’s fun, it's festive and most importantly of all, it's far more compact and not just because the vowels have been removed.

The sevens season is broken up into weekend-long tournaments around the world. Last season’s men’s series comprised 11 legs with 16 teams participating in each stop. The women’s season was slightly shorter.

The new-look SVNS season will be composed of just eight tournaments and only 12 teams have been invited to take part in the top-tier competition across the newly aligned men’s and women’s circuits.

Previously, the men’s circuit contained 15 core members with a qualifier taking up the 16th spot in each leg. This season, it has been narrowed down to a strict 12-member core for the whole season with just the top eight teams qualifying to participate in the eighth leg, which is also the season’s final, another new advent. The women's season will follow the same schedule with different teams.

The 12 men’s teams are: 2023 champions New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Samoa, France, Ireland, USA, Canada, Spain and Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland have been combined for Olympic alignment.) 

On the women’s circuit, it's the same group except that Japan and Brazil are included in place of Argentina and Samoa.

The tournament schedule is as follows: Dubai (December 2-3), Cape Town (December 9-10), Perth (January 26-28), Vancouver (February 23-25), Los Angeles (March 2-3), Hong Kong (April 5-7), Singapore (May 3-4) with the final in Madrid (May 31-June 2).

Big name recruits

The headline news ahead of the season, apart from its slick new schedule, is that France’s World Cup captain and former World Rugby player of the year Antoine Dupont will hop over from 15-aside in order to prepare for an Olympic appearance in Paris next summer.

Dupont will not join the French men’s sevens side until the new year and will thus miss the 2024 Six Nations as he stakes his claim to be a member of the French Olympic team.

Former Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, who was unceremoniously dumped by former Australia coach Eddie Jones ahead of the World Cup, has also committed to sevens for the season. Like Dupont, Hooper is out of the first two tournaments and will join up with the Aussie sevens in the new year.

Both Dupont and Hooper represent massive coups for the sport and even without their immediate participation, have boosted the profile of the upcoming season massively.

Other huge French stars have been rumoured to be making the move over before the Olympics as well with the likes of Damien Penaud, Arthur Vincent and Sekou Macalou linked with switches. And there could yet be more transitions in the other nations.

It’s not the first time that the Olympics has drawn 15-aside players over to the shorter form of the sport with recent World Cup winner Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa and Fiji’s Semi Radradra both turning out at the delayed Tokyo Games in 2021. 

In Rio in 2016 - the sevens debut at the Olympics - South Africa won Bronze with the help of Cheslin Kolbe while New Zealand called up code-switching legend Sonny Bill Williams and current All Blacks star Rieko Ioane.

There’s one thing sevens can offer that traditional rugby can’t and that’s the opportunity to win an Olympic medal. It’s absolutely no surprise that the season leading into the Olympics has thus seen such high-profile recruits but it can’t be stressed enough just how different the sports are. 

The aforementioned Williams, for one, has warned the likes of Hooper against the switch to sevens but other cross-format players have been more encouraging. England scrum-half Danny Care, who played sevens between 2006-08 said Dupont specifically could be one of the best sevens players in the world.

Speaking to the Rugby Union Weekly podcast, Care said of Dupont: “If anyone could do it and be the best player at the tournament (Olympics), it is him.

“He is the perfect sevens player, and he will be a joke at sevens. He will be incredible, people won’t touch him, he will score tries and set up tries.”

How does Olympic qualification work?

At this point, you’re probably wondering how teams qualify for the Olympics and whether that ties into the upcoming season. 

Interestingly, the 2023/24 campaign will have no bearing on Olympic qualification at all. Along with hosts France, the top four teams from the 2022/23 season qualified from both the men’s and women’s sides with six other spots filled in each via continental qualifiers.

The 12th spot is still up for grabs on both sides and will be settled via a standalone qualifier tournament in June 2024 that is contested by sides who finished second and third in continental qualifying. 

This Olympic qualifying format may sound a bit confusing but it is quite fun. Because of the system, some heavyweight sides and SVNS core members have still not qualified.

South Africa's men’s side, for example, finished outside the top four in last season’s series and lost to Kenya in the African qualifier final so have to go through the qualifier tournament. The same is true of Great Britain’s men’s team.

All eyes on Dubai

The Olympics, however, is still miles away and before the sevens stars hit Paris next summer, we have the not-so-small matter of a whole season to get out of the way, starting in Dubai.

On the men’s side, New Zealand will, as ever, be the series favourites with usual suspects Fiji expected to be near them in the final standings.

France, Australia and Samoa all had strong campaigns last series but the real surprise was Argentina. They finished second, their highest-ever rank, winning three of the tournaments along the way.

If you’re looking for stars, New Zealand’s Fijian-born talisman Akuila Rokolisoa was the top points scorer last season. Keep an eye on Ireland’s Terry Kennedy, too; in the season before last, he scored an incredible 50 tries and was named World Rugby’s sevens player of the year for 2022. He then took a short break from the game but now he’s back and raring to go.

On the women’s side, New Zealand absolutely dominated last season, as they have historically, winning all but one tournament.

Australia won the opener in Dubai in 2022 and will be hoping to do that again this weekend to provide the Kiwis with some pressure from the off. The USA came third in last season's final standings so expect them to be thereabouts throughout.

Keep an eye out for Maddison Levi. A former Australian rules footballer, Levi topped the 2022/23 season for both tries and points and is an emerging superstar in the game. Her sister Teagan is in the Australian team, too.

With the new finals tournament added in Madrid, the season has a bit more jeopardy than in previous years. It’s no longer just about being top dog, every side across men’s and women’s circuit will be fighting for a top eight berth after seven rounds.

We may still be waiting for Dupont and Hooper to hit the circuit but that doesn’t mean the circuit will be lacking quality. This season represents a bold new chapter for sevens and all eyes will be on Dubai as sparks promise to fly in the opening meet. Let the party begin!

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