James Mortimer 27.Jan.2013Getty Images
New Zealand, winners in Dubai, the first leg of the Women’s Sevens Series – announced in October last year by the International Rugby Board as further commitment to the build-up of the Olympics and increased focus on the ladies who play the game - will head to America as the slight favourites.
Sean Horan and his troops, a mix of Go4Gold applicants, experienced rugby players and Black Ferns, would have been thrilled to have won the title in the UAE, but know that the challenge will increase dramatically as the first ever stop of the series has begun.
In round two it will be significantly different.
Not only are Houston host's the USA a fast growing Women’s power, now with 16 full-time athletes training as professional Sevens players, but locals Canada have been impressive, securing like New Zealand significant funding to give the ladies team every chance of winning Olympic Gold in 2016.
Houston, America’s fourth largest city and home to the famous Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre, home of NASA’s Mission Control Centre (yes, "Houston we have a problem") has a proud pedigree when it comes to sport.
Texas’ largest city has the Reliant Astrodome, the first indoor stadium built in the world in 1965 (locals like to refer to it as the Eighth Wonder of the World), while the city’s most famous team would arguably be their NBA team the Houston Rockets, who ruled the basketball planet when the likes of Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler guided them to championships in 1994 and 1995 – the only side to halt the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls juggernaut at the time.
As if that wasn’t enough, the city will also host the 2013 NBA All-Star Game.
The leg for the Women’s Sevens will take place at the brand new BBVA Compass Stadium, home to the Houston Dynamos and host to their first ever match in May of last year.
It is somewhat fitting that the stadium will host their first Women’s rugby match of any sort next week, after the Women’s United States Soccer team played their first ever international there in December, while the US Men’s Soccer team will play just a few days out from the Women’s Sevens Rugby leg.
The 20,000 plus ground might not be as grand as the nearby Reliant Stadium, the 71,000 home to the city’s local NFL team the Texans, the first ground in the massive American sport to have a fully retractable roof, but the occasion will be no less grand while the competition should be fierce.
The New Zealand Women will now be marked, and while they may be buttressed by some Black Ferns in a strong looking squad, perhaps their biggest threat in England have also had their arsenal increased with the inclusion of some ladies from the all-conquering England Women’s fifteen team, looking for yet another Six Nations Grand Slam just after whitewashing the World Champion Black Ferns 3-0.
While New Zealand and England may be matched together in Pool A of the Houston event, they will have to keep one eye firmly focused on the Netherlands, who are one of the six core Women’s teams – and will rely on home support in Amsterdam during the fourth leg (the fourth is in Guangzhou in China).
South Africa surprised many in Dubai, coming close to title success, and like New Zealand their strong rugby pedigree has shown up quickly in their Women’s Sevens team, and they will headline Pool B with hosts USA, Canada and the always competitive Argentineans.
Pool C will see Women’s Sevens World Cup champions Australia battle of against Russia and Japan, two more countries pouring huge resources into the teams, while Brazil, the most powerful ladies side in South America for nearly a decade, will continue to try and impose their local form on the grand international stage.