Australian Emilee Cherry will be making a return at the New Zealand Sevens this Saturday following the birth of her daughter Alice in June last year.
Emilee, who was a member of theAustralia’s Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal winning team is expected to feature prominently for the Aussies in the fourth round of the World Rugby Sevens Series in Hamilton from 25-26 January.
The former World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year will become the latest Australian to reach 30 series tournaments, some 19 months after her 29th in Paris when she scored the last-gasp try against France that clinched a second series title for her country and a place in the Cup final.
With it being two years this weekend since Australia claimed their last Cup title, on home soil in Sydney, the return of Cherry, Dominique du Toit and Emma Sykes after long lay-offs couldn’t come at a better time for coach John Manenti with Shannon Parry, Evania Pelite and Charlotte Caslick sidelined.
Australia, beaten finalists in both Glendale and Cape Town, are not the only team to welcome back experienced campaigners in Hamilton with hosts New Zealand boosted by the return of captain Sarah Hirini and former World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year Michaela Blyde who missed the double triumph in Dubai and Cape Town due to injury.
A Rugby World Cup winner in sevens and 15s, Kelly Brazier will become the fourth Black Ferns Sevens player to reach 30 tournaments and her team-mates will want to want to mark the occasion by becoming the third nation to win their home event after Australia in Sydney in 2018 and USA in Glendale last October.
Cherry and Brazier are not alone in reaching 30 tournaments in Hamilton as Australia’s Emma Tonegato, Spanish duo Bárbara Plà and Iera Echebarria, Fiji’s Ana Maria Roqica and England’s Amy Wilson Hardy also do, the last two becoming the first from their country to hit the milestone.
The Black Ferns Sevens and two of their Pool A opponents – England and China – are no strangers to the atmosphere of a New Zealand Sevens, having played in the invitational Fast Four tournament during the HSBC New Zealand Sevens last year.
England, Cup quarter-finalists in Cape Town, welcome back Ellie Kildunne and Sydney Gregson for their first appearances of the 2020 series and will also hand a debut to Georgie Lingham, while former captain Roqica returns for the other side in the pool Fiji after missing their run to the quarter-finals in Dubai and Cape Town.
China are the invitational team this weekend and have spent the last four weeks in New Zealand. Chen Keyi is the most experienced member of a China squad featuring three of the five players who will make their series debuts in Hamilton in Tang Minglin, Zheng Wenyan and Xu Xiaoyan. While the squad may not feature many of those who played on the 2019 series, nine of them did help China qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by winning the Asian qualifier in Guangzhou last November.
Australia will face Brazil, Russia and USA in Pool B. While Australia have made a number of changes, their biggest rivals USA have only made two with Steph Rovetti returning after missing the last two rounds and Kayla Canett stepping up from 13th player in Cape Town with that position now filled by Cheta Emba.
Russia have also rung the changes with the absence of captain Alena Mikhaltsova the most significant, Kristina Seredina taking over the armband with her side’s first victory in Hamilton to be their 100th in series history. Brazil have been in New Zealand since the last round in Cape Town and have made four changes to their squad and handed the captaincy to Isadora Cerullo.
For the fourth tournament in a row, Canada will field the most experienced squad with 266 events between 12 players, half of them having more than 25 tournaments to their name. Bianca Farella and captain Ghislaine Landry are both approaching personal milestones in Hamilton with the only change from Cape Town being the inclusion of Youth Olympic Games bronze medallist Keyara Wardley, who turns 20 on Monday.
Their Pool C rivals France hand Jade Le Pesq and Valentine Lothoz their first starts of the series, while Ireland will hope the return of captain Lucy Mulhall will see an upturn in fortunes after disappointing campaigns in Dubai and Cape Town. Spain complete the pool with Echebarria one of four players in the squad – including 13th player Paula Requena – who played in Las Leonas’ test defeat to Scotland last Sunday before heading to New Zealand.
In the men’s competition, New Zealand have made three changes to the squad that came from behind to defeat South Africa 7-5 in the Cape Town Sevens final last month, as they seek another win at the New Zealand Sevens.
Both Etene Nanai-Seturo and Vilimoni Koroi, who made their world series debuts in Wellington in 2017, will make their first appearances on the 2020 series this weekend alongside Sione Molia who last featured in Dubai.
Taking place at the FMG Stadium in Hamilton from 25-26 January, the men’s tournament is the third in the World Rugby Sevens Series 2020 following Dubai and Cape Town last month.
“We’ve been training hard the last couple of weeks and we’ve got a couple of new boys coming in this weekend who will hopefully lift the level again,” said co-captain Tim Mikkelson.
“For our assistant coach Tomasi Cama this will be his 100th tournament either playing or as a coach so that’s a special milestone that we want to respect and we’ll be doing everything this weekend for him.”
Drawn in Pool A, the All Blacks Sevens will face Scotland – who have named one debutant, Paddy Kelly, in an otherwise unchanged side – and Wales who have made three changes for Hamilton. Both Scottish and Welsh players – alongside England – will be vying for a spot in the Team GB Olympic squad which will form later this year when head coach Simon Amor will make his selection for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Their final Pool A encounter will be against USA, whose captain Madison Hughes will become the fifth USA player to reach 50 events in a country where he made his world series debut in 2014. He will lead a squad that features Ben Pinkelman and Martin Iosefo, who were rested for Dubai and Cape Town after playing at Rugby World Cup 2019.
South Africa, who took the opening title of the 2020 season in Dubai, make seven changes from Cape Town due to injuries and players returning to Super Rugby. The new faces for this event include Stedman Gans, who is named as captain, and South Africa’s all-time leading point scorer Cecil Afrika.
“For us as a team this season has been good so far, we showed some good rugby in Dubai and Cape Town and I think that’s a good foundation for us to build on,” said Gans.
“Our preparation started early in January, so we have prepared well leading up to Hamilton and we are very excited.”
South Africa will play in Pool B alongside Kenya, England and invitational side Japan.
Following the announcement that Amor will join Eddie Jones’ Six Nations coaching set-up, former England player and assistant coach James Rodwell will take the reins as head coach for Hamilton, Sydney, Los Angeles and Vancouver.
Rodwell has made five changes to England’s squad for this weekend, including 18-year-old debutant Alfie Johnson and captain Tom Mitchell, who makes his long-awaited return from injury. Mitchell last played in Singapore 2019 with this weekend’s tournament marking his 60th series event.
Kenya have made three changes to their squad with their most-capped player Collins Injera, who last played in Paris 2018, poised to also play his 60th series event in Hamilton, while Japan have made eight with only Fisipuna Tuiaki, Chihito Matsui, Ryota Kano and Yoshikazu Fujita backing up from Cape Town.
Pool C features France, Ireland, Canada and Spain. France, who beat Fiji for the first time since Cape Town 2015 to win the bronze medal in the same city last month, have made one change to their side with their leading points scorer Terry Bouhraoua returning after missing out in South Africa.
2020 series newcomers Ireland make two changes, while Canada and Spain make two and four, respectively.
Defending series champions Fiji, who failed to reach the Cup quarter-finals in Dubai for the first time in World Rugby Sevens Series history, finishing ninth will be looking to reestablish their form in Hamilton this weekend where they have been victorious for the last two years.
Apenesia Cakaubalavu, who was called up as an injury replacement in Cape Town, Livai Ikanikoda and Asaeli Ratuvuaka are the three new players named by Gareth Baber for this weekend.
Elsewhere in Pool D, Lewis Holland needs one try to become Australia’s out-right all-time top try-scorer in series history in what will be his 50th series event. Head coach Tim Walsh has named six changes with newly-named captain Nick Malouf – who missed out on Cape Town due to injury – one of them.
The other Pool D contenders, Argentina and Samoa, have made three and four changes, respectively.