The Black Ferns Sevens are the reigning HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions but in terms of success in the upcoming season, that means little. The side will kick off their 2019/20 international season next weekend at the Glendale Sevens in USA. It is the start of a long journey which includes the biggest ever World Series and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The team heads into the new season well aware of an ever-improving chasing pack looking to knock them off their perch. Sports reporter David Beck was at a training run in Mount Maunganui to get a feel for the mood in the camp.
Anticipation levels among the Black Ferns Sevens squad are at an all-time high with the start of the 2019/20 women's sevens season just over a week away.
Ahead of the first tournament of the HSBC World Series in Glendale, USA, the team is hard at work at their Mount Maunganui base, ensuring they are physically and mentally prepared to defend their title.
On Wednesday, they went through a game day simulation at Blake Park in which they split into teams and played full contact matches - the games and time in between were all timed to match what they will face in the USA.
Captain Sarah Hirini said the simulation was one of many important cogs in the pre-season machine.
"We're replicating three games, a quarter, semi and a final. It's also to add the extra detail in; making sure we have our team songs that we'll play at the tournament, getting timings right. It gives girls who haven't been on the world series experience of what will happen in the changing room.
"What happens on the field is pretty much what happens on the World Series - it's competitive, people want to win and people want to smash you. Everyone's fighting for 12 spots and there's 24 of us so it's pretty brutal.
"It's cool that we have that competitive nature against each other and I think it makes our team extremely strong."
The strong bond between the players is obvious - they had six weeks off during the off season and Hirini said it was always an exciting time when they returned to Tauranga to start training together again.
"When we don't see each other for a weekend we're pretty pumped to see each other on a Monday so after that six weeks the first couple of days were really loud ... just having that reconnection time which the management gave us which is really beneficial because we're able to reconnect with each other and make sure we're all on the same page again."
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Hirini, along with teammates Ruby Tui and Tyla Nathan-Wong, is a nominee for the World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year. Hirini's nomination continues what has been a big year in terms of individual honours, after becoming the first female player to bring up 200 World Sevens Series matches and receiving a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rugby.
"It's a huge honour, I don't really think about those things, but it's really nice when you can tell your mum and dad and your husband that you've been nominated - just to see the excitement on their faces.
"To be nominated along with two other Black Ferns makes it extra special for our team as well because it shows how much work we are putting in as a group and how dominant we've been in the last year," Hirini said.
New Zealand Rugby confirmed yesterday that Allan Bunting, who returns to the squad after a period of leave this year, will link with caretaker coach Cory Sweeney as co-coaches of the side through to the Olympics.
Bunting said they had a tough job on their hands picking a squad for the first tournament in the USA.
"There's definitely intent and intensity there, it's a little bit messy but you expect that in our first trial. [Coming back from off season] they know what they're heading into. It's about rejuvenating and having a good rest but then being prepared to start training again.
"We've got a big year now, it's not about putting all our eggs in one basket and it is a bit of a marathon but we want to do well [in USA next week]."
The Black Ferns Sevens squad for the Glendale Sevens in USA will be named later today.
2019/2020 Black Ferns Sevens schedule
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, October 5-6 , Glendale
Oceania Sevens, November 10-11, Fiji
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, December 5-7, Dubai
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, December 13-15, Cape Town
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, January 25-26, Hamilton
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, February 1-2, Sydney
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, April 3-5, Hong Kong
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, May 2-3, Langford
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, May 30-31, Paris
2020 Tokyo Olympics, July 30 – August 1, Tokyo