Opening day pivotal for Canterbury sevens side

Canterbury men's sevens coach Chris Neill admits his side's opening two games will ultimately determine how far they can go at this weekend's national championships in Rotorua.

The red-and-blacks face a difficult start today, kicking off against defending champions, Taranaki, and runner-up, North Harbour, in their first two pool matches. They finish off the first day against Mid-Canterbury.

With only the top two teams from each pool advancing onto the quarterfinals, Canterbury will need to topple either Taranaki or North Harbour to progress through to the top half of the draw.

Canterbury beat an under-strength North Harbour side at last weekend's Bay of Plenty invitational warm-up tournament in Mt Maunganui, but lost 26-21 to Taranaki, after trailing 19-0 at halftime.

"Day one is always hard," Neill said. "The first game of the tournament is crucial. It's hard on fitness, your lungs are burning and there's the combinations [to perfect]."

Canterbury have not won the national sevens title since 1993, but Neill said there was a positive feeling in the camp they could threaten some of the leading contenders this year. They had picked specialist sevens players in their squad and believed they had plenty of points in them.

"We've certainly got the attack and will score some tries. There's individual brilliance, ability and X-factor right across the park."

Canterbury's main strike weapons will be Mark Jackman, who has previously played for the New Zealand side, former Fijian sevens international Sakenasa Aca and William Saukuru, and Marist Albion flyer Joseva Ravouvou.

Neill had hoped to include star New Zealand sevens player Sam Dickson in his squad, but he has not been released by national coach Gordon Tietjens.

Canterbury are likely to be the only team without any NPC contracted players in their squad, with the bulk of those players in the Crusaders' Super Rugby team.

The Canterbury women have named a talented squad, which includes New Zealand sevens representatives, Alexis Tapsell and Olivia Bird, and Black Ferns Amiria Rule and Kendra Cocksedge.

They have been grouped alongside Bay of Plenty, Counties Manukau, Taranaki and last year's champions, Manawatu.

"We've got a pretty fit squad with good ball skills. We're playing Zoey Berry and Vicki Lee Campbell in the forwards. Both can tackle and pinch a lot of ball for us," Canterbury coach Ernie Goodhue said.

Canterbury warmed up for the nationals with the Bay of Plenty invitational, losing 10-7 to Manawatu in the semifinals.

The national championships have a new host venue in Rotorua this year, having been held in Queenstown from 2004 to 2013.

The Press