Paris Sevens preview: Olympic preparation hots up as Sevens Series heads for Europe

The Sevens Series lands in Paris for the ninth of ten events this season, with Fiji still leading the way in the overall standings

Paris Sevens preview: Olympic preparation hots up as Sevens Series heads for Europe
The 16 captains meet up ahead of the Paris Sevens (image via: worldrugby.org)

After a ten-year absence, World Rugby Sevens returns to Paris this weekend, for the penultimate leg of the 2015-16 series. 

With now less than 100 days until Sevens rugby graces the Rio Olympic Games, preparation is fully underway for most nations competing, with just 12 matches remaining for most this season over the next fortnight.

The 25,000 seater Stade Jean Bouin will play host to the tournament which opens with one round of matches on Friday evening, before playing through the weekend ahead of Sunday's final. 

Kiwi stars return to take on Singapore champs in Pool A

Victories for New Zealand in Wellington and Sydney at the start of the Sevens season came with a number of Super Rugby stars amongst their ranks. Ardie Savea has since decided to stay with the XV-a-side game, but Rieko and Akira Ioane have returned to Sevens and will take to the field in Paris this weekend. 

The Ioane brothers, Rieko (left) and Akira (right) return to the New Zealand 7's setup (image via: planetrugby)

As well as the Ioane brothers returning to the fold, Augustine Pulu and Sonny Bill Williams have overcome their injury worries and are part of Sir Gordon Tietjens side this weekend. The team will look to experienced heads Gillies Kaka and Kurt Baker for direction, who were both crucial in claiming the Vancouver title

Kenya will fancy their chances in Pool A also, coming off the back of their famous win in Singapore last month. In their 115th World Series tournament, the Kenyans claimed an improbable victory over Fiji in the final and will look to go from strength-to-strength in Europe over the next fortnight, and then Rio in August. 

Collins Injera and Humphrey Kayange will lead the charge for Benjamin Ayimba's side again, with Singapore hero Nelson Oyoo included once more. 

European duo Russia and Portugal make up the remainder of Pool A, with the Russians able to use the Paris Sevens as excellent build-up for their Olympic qualifying event in Monaco next month. 

Overall leaders Fiji pitted against Pacific neighbours once more in Pool B

If there is one side who have caused problems for Fiji this season more than any other then it is their Pacific Island compatriots Samoa, who have had their number in the group stages more than often. 

Ben Ryan's Fiji team have built an eight-point lead at the top of the overall standings having won three of the eight tournaments this year, and the Englishman has handed season debuts to four players including Samisoni Viriviri who was the Sevens player of the year in 2014.

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Samisoni Viriviri returns to the Fijian Sevens side (image via: zimbio)

The other three newcomers have all enjoyed outstanding seasons in the 15-a-side game, and are being given the opportunity to fight for an Olympic Sevens spot. Glasgow second-row Leone Nakarawa, Toulon winger Josua Tuisova and Stade Francais' Waisea Nayacalevu are each set to play their first World Series tournament since 2013 as Ryan tries to find the perfect combination for Rio. 

Savenaca Rawaca misses out again for the Fijians through injury, but this season's breakthrough player Kitione Taliga is included in the 12 once more alongside Jasa Veremalu, Osea Kolinisau and Jerry Tuwai in a star-studed squad. 

Samoa are without star man Phoenix Hunapo-Nofoa in Paris, but can still call on the likes of Samoa Toloa, Tila Mealoi and Falemiga Selesele as they ready themselves for next month's repecharge. 

Wales and Scotland are also in Pool B and are more than capable of qualifying for the final eight. Their matchup will be fascinating as the battle for places on Team GB for the Olympics heats up, with Damien Hoyland recalled to the Scottish squad.

English handed tough task with Wallabies and Boks alongside in Pool C

Ahead of their home tournament next week in London, England have to be at their best to qualify from a tough-looking Pool C in Paris. 

Without influential pair Tom Mitchell and Dan Bibby, Simon Amor has handed the skippers armband to Warwick Lahmert, with the 25-year-old amongst the most experienced members of the squad. Four players in Amor's 12 man squad are 21-or-under, yet all players heading to France have previous World Series experience, and expectations will remain high.

South Africa welcome back Francois Hougaard after he finished his season with Worcester, with Kyle Brown captaining the side once more. The Bltitzbokke have not won a tournament in 2016 and the likes of Cecil Afrika, Seabelo Senatla and Rosko Specman will be looking to put that right this weekend. 

Francois Hougaard makes his much-awaited return to the Blitzbokke side (image via: myfavplayers.co.za)

In big news for the Australians, Jesse Parahi returns to the fold after seemingly turning his back on Sevens last year. Parahi signed a deal with the Wests Tigers team in the NRL, only to then change his mind once more for a shot at Olympic gold. He is joined in the squad this weekend by Nick Cummins who is hoping to do enough to persuade coach Andy Friend that he is worth an Olympic place, unlike the discarded Quade Cooper

Pool C also includes Olympic hosts Brazil, who couldn't have been handed a much tougher task in Paris, but will be better for the experience. 

Hosts involved in fascinating Pool D as Pumas welcome XVs stars

Pool D is the most open, with all four sides fully capable of claiming top spot or finishing bottom. The United States and Argentina will be favourites to progress according the overall standings this season, but Canada have made huge progress this year, and France will be backed by a boisterous home crowd which will make it a fascinating battle for the top two spots. 

The French have included excitement machine Virimi Vakatawa and young sensation Sacha Valleau in their squad for the Paris event. Speedstar Julien Candelon will also take to the field this weekend, with captain Terry Bouhraoua also back, in what looks like the best French squad of the season. 

Santiago Gomez-Cora has called on two 15-a-side players to bolster his Argentinian squad, with World Cup heroes Santiago Cordero and Matias Moroni involved for the first time this season. They join an ever-improving Pumas side who have started to become perenial quarter-finalists. 

Santiago Cordero returns to the Sevens fold in Paris (image via: worldrugby.org)

The most settled of the sides are the United States, who will roll out a similar squad to that who have played all season. Mike Friday will be looking to speed merchant Perry Baker and skipper Madison Hughes to unlock the opposition defences in what is sure to be a tight group. 

Canada have included a couple of new names in their squad, with their attention fully on June's repecharge in Monaco where they hope to claim Olympic qualification. Nathan Hirayama has been one of the standout players this season and will have to be at his best for the Canadians to reach the final eight in Paris.