Sevens stars set to explode into 15-a-side European rugby
A look at the recognisable faces from the Sevens World Series who have been brought into top XVs clubs for the season ahead
Summer always sees a flurry of activity as players move clubs, but it feels like this year more stars of the sevens game swapped codes than ever before. It is looks set to continue into the future too – Fiji’s Olympic gold-winning skipper Osea Kolinisau has signed up to play in the inaugural Major League Rugby season in 2018, with the Houston Strikers.
There are plenty of big names from the abbreviated game on show now, though not all of them will be hanging around. South Africa have released Cecil Afrika, Chris Dry and Rosko Specman to play for the Cheetahs in the Guinness Pro14 but the trio are expected to return to the Blitzboks in October, just in time to defend their World Series title.
As the we get into the swing of European XVs, here is a quick guide to some of those stars, with a hand from those who know sevens inside-out…
Virimi Vakatawa – Racing 92
If you love the Six Nations, you know who big Virimi is. Fijian by birth, this naturalised Frenchman became a regular fixture on the wing for Guy Noves’s national side, despite still playing his rugby on the Sevens World Series, rather than in the Top 14.
He is now with Racing 92, and having been rested alongside other French Test stars, is back in the mix. They will want to get the ball to him often. As England Sevens leader and Olympic silver medal-winning GB skipper Tom Mitchell says: “Vakatawa has a brilliant combination of speed and power which makes defending him a tough ask. Add in that he is light on his feet and it makes stopping him from making yards virtually impossible.”
Terry Bouhraoua – Stade Francais
He’s only 30 but it feels like Bouhraoua has been part of the French sevens set-up forever. In 2016, Bouhraoua told Rugby World: “I have also changed a lot as a player since my first tournament (in 2010). When you start you just go straight and hard. I’ve learnt to think better during games.”
Looking at the Stade scrum-half, Mitchell says: “Terry is an old-school, wiry, small-statured man of the French game. An elusive runner with top notch pace.” Snipes can set him apart, but he’ll need to get past Charl McLeod in the Paris pecking-order.
Nick Malouf – Leicester Tigers
Fox Australia commentator Sean Maloney is one of the game’s biggest characters. Upon hearing that Nick Malouf would be pulling on a Tigers jersey this season, he told Rugby World: “Nick was a huge out for the Aussie Sevens when injured for most of the 15-16 season – previous to that he was one of the first players picked. He is a really strong runner and will add a lot defensively, too. He also has a massive motor and is always chasing work.”
Malouf began his playing days as a back-rower before moving into the backs. Leicester have selected him to start on the wing against Bath, but Maloney has other ideas: “I reckon he’ll shine in the centres.”
Cameron Cowell – Newcastle Falcons
He is listed as a senior academy player for the Falcons, but there is a nice blueprint for Cam Cowell to rise through the ranks in Newcastle, if he can bottle the lightning that fellow former England sevens star Marcus Watson displayed at Kingston Park.
He’s well established in sevens. Just ask former England player and respected commentator Rob Vickerman.
“He has been around the England sevens set up for years, initially as a 17-year-old schoolboy,” Vickerman explains. “He was the understudy to Mitchell and Dan Bibby with as much, if not more pace, and a very good eye for a gap, with acceleration to exploit it. His education will come through knowing when to attack and when to use a good, probing kicking game. His downside, much like great sevens players, is what position he will nail down.”
Falcons are not sure if he’s a wing or a full-back, but at just 21, time is on Cowell’s side.
Andrew Duratalo – Ealing Trailfinders
This one is not in an elite league, he did play for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby in 2016, and he’s 30… but USA Eagles cap Andrew Durutalo is worth keeping an eye on.
Born in New York to Fijian parents, the family moved back to the islands when Durutalo was young – his education (in rugby as well as academically) came at Suva Grammar School and then Hakuoh University, in Oyama, Japan. He has 15 caps for the USA Eagles as a back-row and is eying the 2019 World Cup – hence the search for week-in, week-out 15s.
“Durutalo has a wonderful skill-set and re-wrote the sevens forward’s remit in recent seasons,” Vickerman says. “His offloading game is outstanding and his work-rate and breakdown skills are there to match it.
“A big hitter in defence and someone who was rarely exposed in defence, despite being 20 to 40kgs heavier than most opposite him! A very canny signing and one that excites me.”
Cecil Afrika – Cheetahs
In so many ways, when you think of South Africa sevens, you think of Cecil Afrika. He has pulled the strings for many years, kicking the points, dragging play around the field, fronting up when a big play needs started.
His head coach at Blitzboks, Neil Powell, beams with joy when asked about Afrika. “He is one of our leaders. He is not the captain, but when we are making decisions out on the field, Cecil will make the calls. He will make a great assistant coach in the future.
“He will often come into my office, having done a lot of analysis. He will say something like: ‘Maybe lets try this against Fiji.’”
He is listed on the bench for the Cheetahs opener against Ulster, and could swap with full-back Sergeal Petersen later in the game.
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Chris Dry – Cheetahs
“Chris played 95% of our games last season,” Powell says of the flanker, who has led the Blitzboks, but who captains a depleted Free State Cheetahs from the openside this weekend, with the Currie Cup squad missing their Pro14 stars. Not that it matters for Dry, a player who takes on any challenge, with Powell clarifying: “Often he would play every minute of every game for us.”
The Blitzboks see Dry as an energy source – someone who brings a “vibe” according to Powell. We may see his all-action game in the Pro14 before the October return to sevens.
Rosko Specman – Cheetahs
If Dry brings work-rate, Specman brings fun. At least that’s how Powell sees it, laughing as he declares Specman “such a great guy.” A joker, who’s mouth can motor at the same rate as his feet, Specman has X-Factor. He starts on the wing for the Cheetahs against Ulster tonight, and for those who saw any of the Sevens Series last season, they know he can pull a rabbit out of the hat. It was needed with the loss of a certain sevens superstar.
Powell says: “He is very explosive and has hard work and movement, but we asked him to step up without Seabelo Senatla. He massively stepped up in Vegas, in the absence of Seabelo.
“Much like Cecil, he is not the biggest, but he has very good contact skills.”
Hopefully Specman can bring some much-needed mischief to the Pro14.
Sam Cross – Ospreys
There is no set limit of time being put out there, no declarations of future plans, but the Ospreys brought in Wales sevens leader Sam Cross, to augment their back row for a friendly against Leicester, and he isn’t shuffling on up the road just yet.
Ospreys boss Steve Tandy initially said of the Olympic silver medallist: “We’ve been following Sam’s development for some time now, identifying him as someone with potential to do well at the 15-man game.”
By the time the region were announcing the loan signing of Guy Mercer from Bath this week, though, Tandy was calling on Cross again, saying: “Sam Cross came in last week and I thought he did really well up in Leicester so all of a sudden we are getting more options in the back-row department.”
Known for his lungs and legs, it’s a great time for Cross to get his foot in the door at the Liberty Stadium.