With the HSBC SVNS 2024 kicking off in Dubai shortly, commentator Joe Byrnes selects 12 former sevens players to join a pre-selected Bomb Squad front row in his sevens-into-15 Dream Team

With SVNS reborn hurtling over our horizon, and this year’s Rugby World Cup still reverberating in our souls, I thought I’d take some time to consider the standout performers whose origin stories have sevens encoded into their rugby double helix.

Front row exponents of the less-congested form of the game are in scarce supply, so I’ve assumed a Bomb Squad front row and partnered them with a ‘Dream SVNS Dozen’ – which handily mirrors a sevens match squad size – from 4-15, and in true Sevens style repurposed some backrowers into locks to make for an super-dynamic pack.

4 Juan Martin Gonzalez (Argentina)

People have been quietly talking up this young backrow for some time, and with his accomplished performances, it’s easy to forget he only made his Pumas debut in 2021. 

Such is my admiration for the Puma paced forward, I have bent the rules, slightly, to accommodate him. He never played in the World Series but was ‘discovered’ playing sevens and went on to captain Argentina to gold at the 2018 Youth Olympics alongside Marcos Moneta.

He was one of only two Pumas to start every game at the recent World Cup, missing just 47 minutes, scoring a try v Chile and being a key lineout jumper and opposition ball snaffler.

5 Vili Mata (Fiji)

I can’t leave an Olympic Gold Medallist out, can I? The Fijian Franking Machine left an imprint on all who met his shoulders in France, taking names in the tackle, and bamboozling in attack with his silky offload game. Five starts at No 8 and a try against England tells just a small part of the impact he made on Fiji’s greatest ever World Cup.

Mata not only won Rio Gold but fed his hungry young mind with the wisdom of coach Ben Ryan in the process.

6 Kwagga Smith (South Africa)

Rassie Erasmus’ World Cup Swiss army knife. A man for all occasions, and most importantly in France, all positions. As sticky-fingered as it gets with the ball on the deck, his true worth came in his versatility, charged with covering every jersey North of the No 6. Fast, skilful and confident enough to play out of position - one of the World Champions’ greatest assets on their rampage to World Cup glory.

Smith was a key member of The Blitzbokke’s most lethal era in the shortened format. He, along with Werner Kok, spent five seasons covering every blade of grass and providing silver-service ball for the likes of Seabelo Senatla, Cheslin Kolbe and returning Rosko Specman.

7 Levani Botia (Fiji)

The former warden took no prisoners this autumn in France. ‘The Demolition Man’ lived up to his nickname by blowing away all competition at the breakdown. The Flying Fijian first wore his nation's colours at Wellington 2012, and went on to feature in a total of 11 tournaments plus a Sevens World Cup. 

Sevens is in the Fijian blood, but few in the rich history of the archipelago can match the flanker-come-centre for versatility, impact and engine. A force of nature, unearthed and sculpted in the shortened format.

8 Ardie Savea (New Zealand)

Is there a finer 8 in world rugby? Well, no. There’s no finer player full stop. It’s official. The World Rugby Player of the Year showcased his entire toolbox on the way to the Final in France. Leadership, physicality, pace and a finish in the corner versus Ireland to sit comfortably on any winger’s CV.

When Savea first forayed into the World Series, he spent the year mixing it against the likes of Pama Fou and Alafoti Faosilivia, and with teammates like Waisake Naholo and Charles Piutau to train against day-in, day-out it’s no wonder Ardie looks as comfortable in the five metre channel and he does picking and going from five metres out.

9 Danny Care (England)

England’s tempo changer squeaks into this team as something of an outlier. Care is something of a relic of a bygone era when the two formats co-existed symbiotically in Red Rose thinking.

Ruaridh McConnochie and Jack Clifford (at a push) aside, England have shunned the format that polished Lawrence Dallaglio into a World Cup-winning diamond. Care’s involvement was fleeting, but it garnered a Commonwealth Games Silver and was no doubt formative in his ability to handle the big occasion and add value on the post-match social!

10 Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)

Thirteen years have passed since Barrett’s time with the All Black Sevens but there’s no way the two-time World Player of the Year misses out. 

New Zealand know how to nurture talent and handed the keys to Sir Gordon Teitjens when Beaudie was just 18, before he’d even played NZ U20s. The new New Zealand head coach – and one time on-field wizard – Tomasi Cama was pulling the creative strings back then, and you can’t help but wonder how much of his stardust rubbed off on Barrett, as he spirited towards global stardom.

Arguably his most scintillating years came in the immediate World Cup cycles after that time where the freedom to express oneself, and the laser focus of Sevens were still ringing fresh in his memory.

12 Balthazar Amaya (Uruguay)

Out of position, but who cares, he just has to be in there! Not just flying the flag for Los Teros but representing all those ‘emerging nations’ who were starved of pre-tournament column inches, but left with headlines and stolen hearts.

Three RWC tries in three starts, including a famous one versus the hosts; we’ll miss this guy and his fellow Uruguayan 7s teammates who counted GB and South Africa as scalps on their debut season last year, but still fell foul of relegation. Rest assured, they will be battling their way back via this year’s expanded Challenger Series.

13 Reiko Ioane (New Zealand)

Ioane made his NZ Sevens bow a good six months before he’d debuted for Auckland in the NPC and he was no flash in the pan either, wreaking havoc from Tokyo, to Vegas and five other destinations in between. He scored in every one of the eight events he played in bagging 36 tries in total, including a merciless nine in London over a solitary weekend.

Along with brother Akira, they made for a gruesome twosome to encounter anywhere on the pitch and are both multi-cap All Blacks now.

Shy on tries, but long on big game minutes, Reiko was integral to ABs midfield on their charge to the final at Rugby World Cup 2023. Alarmingly for other centres out there, he’s STILL only 26 years old…

11 Kurt-Lee Arendse (South Africa)

Be honest – 18 months ago you’d never heard of Arendse. With 13 tries in 15 Tests and a World Cup win since his Springboks debut in July 2022, it’s safe to say he’s left a lasting impression on all of us – he’s even stolen Cheslin Kolbe’s jersey in this team.

If you’ve been watching sevens, you’d have had the inside track. Eight Series events and an Olympics in a two-year spell with the Blitzbokke told Erasmus everything he needed to know about the turbo-charged pocket rocket, not just in terms of his talent, but his ability to bring the best of that talent on the biggest stage when it mattered most.

I refer you to Exhibit RWC. His first-half try against France in the legendary quarter-final or his ‘Superman’ tackle on Ioane in the final for confirmation of said traits…

14 Gabin Villiere (France)

Villiere is a glorious example of a player who took his opportunity to shine in sevens before any great 15-a-side fanfare. He first got his break on the Rugby Europe Grand Prix circuit, before a debut proper at Las Vegas in 2018. This was all achieved while playing for Rouen in the French third tier. He played five tournaments and a Sevens World Cup before Toulon signed him in 2019. It was just 16 months later that he made his Six Nations debut for France.

Deceptively strong and a devastating finisher; were it not for ill-timed injury opening the door for the bolting brilliance of Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Villiere would no doubt have played a more prominent role than his two-cap World Cup suggested.

15 Hugo Keenan (Ireland)

The best full back in the world. There, I’m calling it… Safe as Singapore under the high ball, defensively sound and an eye for a gap as good as any Hong Kong party goer at the bar, and it all started with sevens.

Uniquely though, most of his time in the shortened format didn’t happen at the highest levels. 

Ireland have only recently established themselves as a World Series force – that’s thanks to players like Keenan who fought their way up from Rugby Europe’s Sevens. Having said that, in his time with sevens, Keenan helped secure core nation status at the notoriously difficult Hong Kong qualifier, qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and played in the Sevens RWC in San Francisco. It’s no wonder he looked so assured from the get-go in XVs, with all that big tournament experience.

Keenan didn’t miss a minute of Ireland’s enthralling World Cup campaign scoring three tries, including a brace against Scotland.

Unlucky to miss out… Ben Lam, David Wallis, Cheslin Kolbe, Rodrigo Isgro, Lucio Cinti, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Tate McDermott

By Joe Byrnes