Rugby sevens: Auckland won't be short of pace

By Campbell Burnes

Auckland's Rocky Khan. Photo / Maru Ririnui, nz7smagazine.com
Auckland's Rocky Khan. Photo / Maru Ririnui, nz7smagazine.com

Auckland will be short of big names but not pace as they prepare for this weekend's national provincial sevens tournament in Rotorua.

With 12 titles to their name since 1980, Auckland have serious pedigree at this level, but bowed out at the Cup quarter-final stage in 2016.

Former All Blacks Sevens rep Ed Cocker steps up from assistant to take the reins from Waisake Sotutu and feels he has a squad that can go deep into this event.

Rocky Khan, back in the national squad, will lead Auckland and act as playmaker. He will receive expert guidance from one of the abbreviated code's finest playmakers, Amasio Valence, who is Cocker's assistant. Lisati Milo-Harris is on the comeback trail from injury, but he is 13th man for injury cover.

One to keep a close eye on is Mosese Pepa, fresh out of Aorere College. He stood out at last month's Condor Sevens in Auckland and Cocker likes the cut of his gib.

"I watched him playing at school, not just at the Condors. He was a pocket rocket and elusive. He's definitely one to watch," Cocker says. Further pace will be provided by the likes of Suburbs' flyer Jona Sawailau and Mitre 10 Cup squad member Joe Ravouvou, who was released by the Chiefs just today. But Pasqualle Dunn, who was in the extended squad, is training with the Blues. Ignacio Costa, from the Eden club, will bring his wide skillset.

Two who did not feature last weekend are the Visinia brothers, Lolagi and Sebastian, the former seeking to prove a point after being shunned by the Super Rugby selectors, and the latter straight out of Kelston Boys' High School.

Tutu Tairea, another out of the Suburbs club, will provide further experience. He played one tournament for New Zealand in 2009.

Samoan Sevens flyer Ed Fidow was given a late clearance to take his place in the squad.
In Auckland's pool are Otago, Wellington and Horowhenua Kapiti, so the pressure is on to finish in the top two on Saturday, securing passage to the Cup playoffs.

"Otago are first. They are always a niggly bunch, tough boys who go the distance," says Cocker, who is confident his personnel has the ability to perform well, despite some inconsistent form in Mt Maunganui last weekend at last month's northern regional qualifiers.

He suspects the new tackle laws will be more stringently policed after a seemingly more laissez-faire approach by match officials last weekend. There are measures in place for teams to appeal any red or yellow card for up to 30 minutes after matches, as there is no scope for protracted on-field deliberations in a tight TV schedule.

"None of these refs want to get caught out, especially on live TV. I thought they could have enforced it earlier at the Mount, so the boys could have got used to it," Cocker adds.
It is always tricky to nominate favourites in sevens but, unlike in 15s, the powerbase of New Zealand provincial sevens lies in the North Island. Incredibly, since 1975, just Marlborough (twice) and Canterbury (twice) have lifted the Cup from the South, and no South Island side since 1993.

Most of the All Blacks Sevens reps will be in action, barring Counties Manukau's DJ Forbes and Waikato's Tim Mikkelson. Waikato will be strong, having taken out the tournament in Mt Maunganui last weekend, while Wellington and defending champs Counties Manukau have their claims. Bay of Plenty have chosen a decidedly useful squad that includes Scott Curry, Regan Ware, Dan Hollinshead and Isaac Te Aute.

Clark Laidlaw, who will assume the All Blacks Sevens reins in June, will be on hand, on leave from his London Irish club. The New Zealand teams, for both men and women, will be named next week ahead of the January 28-29 event in Wellington.

In the 12-team women's competition, Manawatu will be up there, having won last weekend, while Wellington, Auckland and Counties Manukau will push hard.

Nehe Milner-Skudder, who would be a sensation in sevens, will be there as he nears a playing return with the Hurricanes. He will be the ACC ambassador.

*The Auckland women, with a compelling mix of Black Ferns, Black Ferns Sevens, and rising young talent, will be one of the favourites for their competition, but will be making sure their paperwork is correct after copping a $3000 fine for fielding an ineligible player at last month's northern region qualifiers in Cambridge. In their pool are Wellington, Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay.

*Auckland men's squad: Rocky Khan (c), Dave Afamasaga, Jona Sawailau, Lolagi Visinia, Sebastian Visinia, Tutu Tairea, Mosese Pepa, Ignacio Costa, Joe Ravouvou, Ed Fidow, Brody Lam, Jeremy Innes

- NZ Herald

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