Sevens: Auckland, Taranaki loom as contenders

Auckland and Taranaki loom large as the teams to beat as this weekend's national sevens tournament in Queenstown.

The sides made the final last year, with Auckland coming out on top, and would appear to be two of the favourites at the tournament, held for a ninth year in Queenstown.

Auckland has lost five of its team from last year but coach Wayne Pivac - who has also taken over the 15s side this season - still has confidence in his players to do well.

Auckland entered tournaments on the Gold Coast and in Auckland before Christmas, and won them both.

"We've got some young guys who have come in and have done well. We have got a good system up in Auckland now which is seeing some good young guys come through," Pivac said.

Pivac would have the likes of newcomers Ben Lam and Lolagi Visina in his side while he also has last year's player of the tournament, Malakai Fetitoa, back.

The Auckland side has plenty of size, which Pivac admits he favours.

"I think a good big man will always beat a good little man.

Maybe that is why a team like Bay of Plenty has never won the tournament. They bring some very skilful, fast guys who might lack the sheer physical size of other teams.

"Some of the guys in our team, and you see in other teams, are so strong and powerful. They can run really fast, break tackles. It is more of a power game these days, especially in and around the breakdown."

Pivac said the usual sides would be in with a shout, and he viewed Taranaki with some caution.

Taranaki had won the Mt Maunganui tournament last weekend with a convincing 40-0 win over Canterbury in the final, although some teams, including Auckland, did not enter.

The Amber and Blacks have always been a consistent force at the tournament, and this year are captained by New Zealand international Ben Souness.

Halfback Brett Goodin will direct proceedings and James Marshall, who used to play for Tasman, will also be an important cog in the Taranaki machine.

Other sides favoured to do well include the 2010 champion Waikato, and Bay of Plenty, although it does not appear to have the same star-packed side of past years.

Counties-Manukau is also usually a contender and that should be no different this year.

It, though, has been drawn in probably the toughest pool, alongside Waikato, Wellington and Northland.

Otago has some talent in its side, and with the likes of Buxton Popoali'i and Paul Grant should be competitive. But the South Island sides always find it tough going because of a lack of match play.

The top two sides in each pool go through to the top eight tomorrow, with the final due to be played at 5.15pm.

Queenstown is forecast to put on a couple of sparkling days weatherwise and organising committee chairman Clark Frew is expecting a big crowd to turn up on both days.

The event has become a staple on the Queenstown event calender but it could be one of the last times it is played in the resort.

The tournament is scheduled for next year in Queenstown, which would mark 10 years at the recreation ground, but after that the tournament is going up for tender by the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Frew believed many provincial unions were keen to host the tournament after 2013 though he wanted the tournament to continue in Queenstown.

Over the years it had raised well more than $100,000 for Otago Country rugby and Frew said that was a real bonus for the sport in the area.

Entry to the Queenstown Recreation Ground has risen to $10 a day this year, up from $5, as Frew said costs were increasing for organisers. For more than eight hours entertainment, $10 was still more than reasonable, he said.

The first game today, between North Harbour and Canterbury, kicks off at 11.10am.

National sevens
Pool A:
Auckland, Manawatu, Hawkes Bay, Mid Canterbury
Pool B: Taranaki, Horowhenua-Kapiti, Otago, Southland
Pool C: Waikato, Counties-Manukau, Northland, Wellington
Pool D: Bay of Plenty, North Harbour, Tasman, Canterbury

Five players to watch

Lolagi Visina (Auckland): Fresh out of Kelston Boys High School, he will take some stopping with his big frame and quickness of step.

Kylem O'Donnell (Taranaki): The older brother of New Zealand star Declan, he is sure to make his mark in a talented Taranaki side.

Tim Mikkelson (Waikato): Won the tournament for Waikato a couple of years ago and despite his lanky frame is deceptively quick and packs plenty of power.

Toby Arnold (Bay of Plenty): An unsung hero for the national side, if Arnold can find the gaps and score the points, Bay of Plenty may post a well overdue victory.

Buxton Popoali'i (Otago): The home side's key man, who possesses a dangerous step, combined with pure speed.

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