The 16 squads have been announced for the opening men’s tournament of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2020 in Dubai.
Taking place at 7he Sevens Stadium from 5-7 December, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and will bring together 28 of the world’s best rugby sevens teams for three days of back-to-back action.
Dubai is the first of 10 tournaments on the men’s series which culminates with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games next July.
New Zealand are defending champions in Dubai after they defeated the USA 21-5 in the final last year, their first victory in Dubai since 2009.
The All Blacks Sevens have scored the most points (28,224) and tries (4,490) in the history of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and will face Wales, who survived a relegation battle with Japan last season, Samoa and Canada in Pool C.
Series leaders and Olympic gold medallists Fiji will be captained by Paula Dranisinukula this weekend. In a squad made up of some extremely experienced players, including World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year 2019 in association with HSBC Jerry Tuwai, one player will make his debut appearance in Dubai.
Kavekini Tabu, 25, is one of three brothers in the Fiji squad and will play alongside siblings Sevuloni Mocenacagi and Isoa Tabu when he takes to the field in the desert on Thursday.
“We are keeping our eye on the start of the series, you need to start early on the series, win tournaments early to be satisfied by the end of the season and then concentrate on the Olympics,” Dranisinukula said.
Fiji will play in Pool A alongside Argentina, who won the Sudamérica Rugby Sevens in July to secure their place at Tokyo 2020, Olympic hosts and invitational side Japan and France.
2019 series runners-up USA were the only team to reach every Cup semi-final last season and reached their first Cup final in Dubai last year only to lose to New Zealand.
USA only used 17 players last season, the smallest squad of any core team, and their second place finish was enough to secure their spot at Tokyo 2020.
“We’re all about togetherness, working hard, working together and just doing whatever it takes to succeed together,” said USA captain Madison Hughes.
“Digging in, working hard, you’re not going to be given anything, but you’ve got to go out there and take it. Any time you go out there, you’re going out to win. We’d love to go out and do that but it’s a new season, everyone starts on an even field and there are a lot of good teams.”
Facing USA in Pool B are Australia who will hand former sprinter Trae Williams his series debut this weekend. Williams switched from athletics to sevens in May and has a 100m personal best of 10.10 seconds, ranking him fifth on the Australian all-time list.
On Williams’ selection, Australia coach Tim Walsh said: "He has earned it. He has made a really good transition, a lot quicker than what we anticipated.
"The way he has trained and performed, he has been given the chance and earned the spot. He has a point of difference that is pretty remarkable and we want to be able to unleash that and build combinations and cohesion throughout this season.”
Completing the Pool B line-up are Scotland and Ireland. Ireland are welcomed as the new core team after winning the series qualifier in Hong Kong earlier this year.
As the invitational side at both the London and Paris earlier in the year, Dardis says the experience of playing on the world stage has been great preparation.
“They’ve been big learning curves for us but as an invitational side teams aren’t too aware of what you’re about, but now we’ve put a target on our backs probably so it’s a different story now as a core side,” he said.
“Playing 10 legs is going to be a long season so we’re going to have to be up for it, each week is going to be a massive challenge but we’re hugely excited about it. It’s what we’ve trained for for the last three or four years.”
As the only team last season to top their pool at every event, South Africa will field a strong and experienced squad for the season opener with the likes of Chris Dry, Justin Geduld and Seabelo Senatla named in Neil Powell’s team.
After Philip Snyman recently announced his retirement from international rugby sevens, the Blitzboks will be captained by Siviwe Soyizwapi, who made his HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series debut in Hong Kong in 2016.
Joining South Africa in Pool D is England, who qualified Team GB for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by winning the Rugby Europe tournament this summer, Spain and Kenya.
The action gets underway at 7he Sevens Stadium on Thursday at 17:06 local time (GMT +4) when Samoa take on Canada.