Rugby Sevens series kicks off in Dubai

The Sevens Rugby World Series returns with both the men's and women's teams competing in Dubai. CNN's Neil Curry reports.

Posted: Dec 1, 2017 12:49 PM
Updated: Dec 1, 2017 12:49 PM

The stage is set for an epic battle of speed, stamina and strength as some of the world's most talented rugby players embark upon a momentous sevens season.

This weekend sees the return of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series with both the men's and women's competitions kicking off in Dubai.

The tournament -- the first of 10 for the men and five for the women -- marks the start of a grueling eight months with many teams battling for silverware on three fronts.

In addition to the Sevens Series, the top teams will be competing at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia next April. Then in July, there is the small matter of the Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco -- the first time that the US has hosted the event in its 24-year history.

After completely dominating last year, New Zealand's women are defending their World Series crown, while for the men, South Africa will be the team to beat after they were crowned champions.

Led by captain Philip Snyman, South Africa were an unstoppable force, finally claiming top spot after finishing runners-up in the five previous seasons.

"We've been training for four years now to achieve something like that," Snyman told CNN's World Rugby. "The squad has matured, we have the same goal and everyone sticks to the game plan ... so hats off to all the guys in the team.

READ: France to host 2023 World Cup

"This is a massive season ahead of us especially with the Commonwealth Games and World Cup at the end of the season. We focus on the results of the game and we believe if we stick to that, if we do everything to our ability we will be successful."

Hot on their heels will be New Zealand, Fiji and last year's runners-up England who, like South Africa, are maturing into a formidable unit, says captain Tom Mitchell.

"The strength of our team is the time we've spent together," Mitchell told CNN.

"We have an experienced squad -- guys who have been in the World Series for two or three years now. That means we're a very close-knit side, we've been through a lot of experiences together -- close games, tough tournaments and some wins as well.

"That stands us in good stead in what is going to be a very big year."

Can anyone stop the Black Ferns?

For the women, the Black Ferns Sevens will be the team to beat after winning a fourth title in five years last term.

Sevens' success has mirrored the Kiwi's dominance in 15-a-side. New Zealand beat England 41-32 in Belfast last August to win a fifth World Cup -- a feat that was honored with the Black Ferns being voted Team of the Year at the recent World Rugby Awards in Monaco -- the first women's side ever to win the prize.

READ: Black Ferns honored at World Rugby Awards

There were also gongs for 20-year-old Michaela Blyde who won the Women's Sevens Player of the Year while the supremely gifted Portia Woodman was crowned Women's Player of the Year.

"Portia's a freak," Sarah Goss, captain of the Black Ferns Sevens, told CNN.

"She one of the most talented athletes not just in New Zealand but in the world. It's amazing what she does on the field but also off it. She's a really humble person and will give back to anyone who ever asks for it."

With such an abundance of talent at their disposal, perhaps the only thing separating the Black Ferns from continuing their winning streak won't so much be the opposition, but rather fatigue as they bid for glory on three flanks.

"The biggest challenge for the Black Ferns Sevens is that it's a long season.

"It's about travel and being able to maintain our consistency and our performance. Our goal this season is to take out three titles ... we'll be pretty disappointed if we don't win all three."

Standing in their way will be arch rivals Australia who will be looking to rediscover the form of 2016 which spirited them to their only Sevens Series title to date and Olympic gold at the Rio tournament.

"Beating New Zealand is in the back of our minds -- they've got some speed, they've got some great physicality," Australia's co-captain Sharni Williams said.

Visit CNN/com/rugby for the latest rugby news and features

"When we have beaten New Zealand we've done it by playing our game -- sticking to our structures and having confidence and belief in each other. We'll definitely be able to beat them that way rather than focusing on them so much."

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