Giants New Zealand and South Africa are hurting before the third leg of the International Rugby Board Sevens World Series in Indian Ocean city Port Elizabeth from Friday.
Having won nine of the previous 12 championships, New Zealand suffered a record three consecutive defeats in Dubai last weekend after finishing second behind Fiji on the Australian Gold Coast in the season opener.
South Africa were runners-up last season and 2009 champions so a third-place finish on the Gold Coast and a quarter-final exit in the United Arab Emirates fell below expectations.
England triumphed 29-12 in the Dubai final against resurgent France and coach Ben Ryan is expecting a backlash from the defending champions and the hosts at the 45 000-seat Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
“There are a lot of teams hurting after the tournaments in Australia and the UAE — particularly New Zealand and South Africa — and I expect both of these teams to have a good run this weekend,” warned Ryan.
New Zealand are in Pool B with France, Scotland and Morocco and the South African BlitzBokke in Pool C beside Australia, Canada and Kenya for the 24-fixture mini-league phase on Friday.
England face Samoa, Argentina and the US in Pool A and 2011-2012 championship table-toppers Fiji have Wales, Portugal and Zimbabwe as Pool D opponents.
Each side plays its three opponents once with pool winners and runners-up advancing to the Cup quarter-finals Saturday when there will also be Plate, Bowl and Shield silverware up for grabs.
Long-time New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens arrived in Port Elizabeth — which has replaced Western Cape town George as South African hosts — with a squad shell-shocked by the Dubai debacle.
Defeats by South Africa in the last pool match, by England in the Cup quarter-finals and by Australia in a Plate semi-final represented the lowest point for the men in black since the 1999 birth of the Sevens World Series.
“We have to get more physical and that is an area we are certainly working on. In the past, we dominated that aspect of the game but not so in Dubai,” confessed Tietjens.
“South Africa beat us up a bit and the guys struggled to get their confidence back. We also need to be more composed and patient and improve our option taking, which was shocking last weekend.”
There is one change to the Kiwi squad with Kylem O’Donnell replacing fellow Taranakian James Marshall, who has been called up by Super 15 outfit Wellington Hurricanes for pre-season training.
“We have let ourselves down by not playing to the standards the side is capable of and are now under pressure to raise the level of our performances in front of home supporters,” conceded South Africa coach Paul Treu.
He received the perfect pre-tournament present when reigning IRB Player of the Year and South Africa playmaker Cecil Afrika was passed fit after a rib injury ruled him out of the Dubai leg.
England, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Fiji and Wales reached the last eight of both tournaments this season and are favoured to do so again with Argentina and Samoa set to scrap for the other slot. — AFP