NZ women in good shape for Atlanta sevens
New Zealand will be fit and firing this weekend when they look to take out the Atlanta leg of the Women's Sevens World Series.
Drawn in the pool of death with England, Ireland and the Netherlands, Sean Horan's side are firm favourites to progress, but that doesn't mean it won't be tough.
Last year New Zealand were beaten twice by England, once in the pool stage and then in the semifinal, before a third-fourth playoff loss to Australia.
It was by far their worst tournament finish last season, as they won the remaining world series events in Dubai, Guangzhou and Amsterdam, as well as the sevens World Cup in Moscow.
Horan said his team is well prepared for the tournament this year, and they are hoping to step their play up a gear from last season.
"We've been in camp since last Tuesday down in Wellington. We chose Wellington to be among that sevens atmosphere, and with the exhibition game there as well during the Wellington sevens," Horan said.
"The girls loved that, and it was great to play in front of the home crowd.
"Weather in Wellington wasn't great for sevens, but it was great for Atlanta. They're in the middle of their winter, and that's more the sort of weather we're expecting to go into, so it helps us a lot."
Based on their fitness alone, New Zealand will be a completely different prospect for opposing teams in Atlanta compared with the opening world series event in Dubai in November.
New Zealand coasted through to the final in Dubai, where their fitness finally told and Australia overwhelmed them 35-27.
"We were underdone in Dubai, just based on the nature of our programme and what we were wanting to do.
"We went to Dubai with no real intentions of being match fit. Now it's a little different with all the girls having played regionals and nationals, so we're looking really good.
"We've got a pretty tough pool, starting with the Netherlands, then Ireland and England. It won't be easy, but we're feeling confident."
Horan has reason to be confident, with the competition to get on the plane to Atlanta the fiercest it has ever been.
Seventeen of the 22 contracted players were in Wellington competing for those final 12 places, with young Taranaki teenagers Gayle Broughton and Michaela Blyde in particular impressing to earn selection.
The exciting duo were near unstoppable at nationals in Rotorua last month, and Horan is hoping they can continue that on the world series stage.
Waikato's Jordan Webber is a late inclusion to the squad, replacing Canterbury's Alexis Tapsell.
"We've probably set high expectations on ourselves winning the world series last year and the World Cup, but this year for us is about enhancing that development," Horan said.
"Bringing these new girls in, some people say it could in theoryjeopardise results, but we don't see it like that.
"It gives them a real strong base of competition, and our major priority is about getting our strong program in place, obviously looking forward to Rio and beyond."
Following the Atlanta tournament, New Zealand head to Brazil for the third leg of the 2013-14 world series.
New Zealand women's sevens squad: Linda Itunu, Carla Hohepa, Hazel Tubic, Jordan Webber, Sarah Goss, Gayle Broughton, Tyla Nathan Wong, Micheala Blyde, Huriana Manuel, Selica Winiata, Portia Woodman, Kayla McAlister.