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In one of the most interesting 7s club season in years, there seems to be no clear front-runner for the national title.

Things are muddy enough even before you consider the fact that the defending national champs didn’t even qualify. And then consider that four true contenders are all lumped in one pool. Every year there’s a difficult pool where three of the teams are really strong. This year, Pool A has four teams that are really strong. Somebody is going to be going home very unhappy.

Here’s how the pools look:

Pool A
Utah Warriors
Chicago Lions
Glendale Raptors
Any of these teams is good enough to win the pool, and any of these teams is good enough to win the entire tournament.

But we’ve got to pick someone. For us, the Chicago Lions have the best combination of power, speed, and teamwork. We said this last year, too, and they were undone by injuries. This time, they are deeper, and should be able to handle one or two players being sidelined.

Logically, one should choose Utah over SFGG simply because the Warriors defeated Golden Gate in the Pacific Coast final. But that was a game where SFGG was missing a couple of players due to injury. And given that the rematch of the two will be on SFGG’s home field, we figure this game will be much closer.

Glendale? They are seeded 16th and are certainly not the 16th-best team at the national championships.

In the end, Utah may still have the edge over SFGG, and Glendale, while a very good team, might not quite have the depth throughout its squad to win a game.

Prediction: Chicago, Utah, SFGG, Glendale

Pool D
Schuylkill River
Denver Barbarians
The Barbarians are well coached and organized, but don’t blow you away athletically. Schuylkill River are kind of in the same boat.

OMBAC is athletic (and well coached) but maybe not as polished as a team. YoungBloodz are sort of the same. This is a very tough pool to pick because there’s no true front-runner.

Prediction: Denver, Schuylkill River, OMBAC, YoungBloodz

Pool C
Woodlands Exiles
Pittsburgh Harlequins
Atlanta Old White

The Woodlands Exiles almost pulled out due to trouble finding enough eligible players. As it turns out, they will compete with eight players (actually nine now that John Moonlight has decided to travel). Having one (now two) subs is a thin margin of error, but teams have survived tournaments this way before.

We figure Woodlands will do fine on Saturday, but struggle on Sunday with so little depth.

Atlanta Old White is exciting, smart, and because of their (lack of) size they are forced to move the ball and stay out of contact. Well that’s often a great way to win 7s games.

Pittsburgh and Middlesex are very similar to each other – exciting young players, sense of purpose, but perhaps not enough size or power. Teams like this can do well, but the National Championships are an unforgiving classroom to learn exactly what it takes.

Prediction: Atlanta Old White, Woodlands, Middlesex, Pittsburgh

Pool B
Belmont Shore
Hawaii Select
New Orleans

Hawaii Select does have a boatload of talent, but not enough teamwork or exposure to the rest of the country to win the pool. They are our dark horse pick to take the Bowl however.

New Orleans have four or five outstanding players. That’s not enough.

Belmont Shore made the 2010 national final despite being slow and hurt. Boston is full of talent and has been to that unforgiving classroom long enough that maybe it’s time to make the jump.

Normally we try to avoid just looking at the rosters and saying “oh this team has all these big names, they must be great!” But Belmont Shore is full of healthy, experienced international players. Matt Hawkins and Riaan Hamilton anchor the forwards. Justin Boyd, Peter Sio and Alex Ross provide plenty of speed. And Shalom Suniula is a prize at scrumhalf or flyhalf. For those who wonder if he’s really that good, they will find out.

Prediction: Belmont Shore, Boston, Hawaii, New Orleans

That gives us these quarterfinal matchups

Chicago v. Boston
Belmont Shore v. Utah
Atlanta Old White v. Schuylkill River
Denver v. Woodlands

And our semifinal matchups:
Chicago v. Denver
Belmont Shore v. Atlanta Old White

Well that gives us a Chicago Lions v. Belmont Shore final. We’re leaning Belmont Shore at this point, but it will be close. Both teams have not only one or two big guys, but several; they have skill at halfback, they have decision-makers, and they have speed. Both teams are fit and can play defense.

We pick Belmont Shore, but it’s not going to be easy.

Plate Semis:
Boston v. Woodlands (we pick Boston)
Utah v. Schuylkill River (we pick Utah)

Plate Final:
Utah over Boston
Flash over determination.

Bowl Quarterfinals
SFGG v. New Orleans
Pittsburgh v. OMBAC
Glendale v. Hawaii
Middlesex v. YoungBloodz

Bowl Semis
Glendale v. Middlesex
(Hawaii could upend Glendale. They have a great shot to win the Bowl)

Bowl Final:
SFGG over Glendale.