|South Africa are expecting a tough challenge from NZ, Fiji and England [GALLO/GETTY]
South Africa open the defence of their IRB Sevens World Series in Dubai under mounting pressure from a resurgent New Zealand, Fiji and an England side missing their inspirational captain.
The Springboks topped last season's standings with 132 points garnered from the eight competitions, and are the reigning Dubai title holders.
But coach Paul Treu admitted that his side were there to be shot down.
"To win the title is one thing but to defend it an even tougher task," Treu said.
"We have a strong team with nine of the players who won here last year and claimed the World Series.
"I think last year we were a lot fitter than the other teams, but this year the others seem to be at a different level; they're probably fitter than us, but South Africa are ready to challenge the world."
Fiji pipped England for second spot last year, with New Zealand in fourth ahead of Argentina in standings that saw 11 other nations register points.
Tellingly, Fiji warmed up for this weekend's action in convincing fashion when their 'Barbarians' side beat Treu's SA Vipers development side to take the Sri Lanka Sevens title.
William Ryder, the talented playmaker who is yet to fill compatriot Waisale Serevi's shoes, starred for the Fijian side and could yet set alight the high-octane sevens series.
Veteran Kiwi coach Gordon Tietjens saw his squad last year suffer with injury and form, and has this year put a huge amount of faith in four players.
"I've named four very experienced players in my captain DJ Forbes, vice-captain Zar Lawrence, Tomasi Cama and Lote Raikabula.
“They are my core this season and we'll build around them," he said.
"That's where we've put all of our riches I suppose, and I guess there is a lot of pressure applied to those four players. We are relying on them staying fit this season.
"Last year there's no doubt that we were disrupted by injury, on the World Series and at the World Cup, but this year hopefully our new approach of naming those four contracted players can mean that they can get through the season without injury and allow us to build around them.
"We still had three finals last year and in two of those we lost right at the death in Wellington and London, one of those in extra time. The teams are so evenly matched these days and you've got to take your opportunities when they present themselves, and we didn't always do that."
England coach Ben Ryan, however, will have to do without Ollie Phillips, his captain in the 2008/09 Series and the IRB Sevens Player of the Year, who is now playing in the Top 14 for leading French club Stade Francais.
"Everyone in the squad has worked very hard to get here. More hard work is around the corner for all of the players, but we go to Dubai and George with a good mix of players who can't wait to wear the white shirt with pride," said Ryan with a brave face.
England will be captained by Saracens scrum-half Kevin Barrett and also have the experience of their Australia-based record points scoring playmaker, Ben Gollings, in the side.
Dubai, which hosted the Rugby World Cup Sevens in March, is a showcase for the popularity of the abbreviated form of rugby union and is the first venue to host a major rugby sevens event sicne the sport's inclusion in the 2016 Olympics.
"I think the profile of sevens rugby is bigger than fifteens," argued Springbok coach Treu.
"The major rugby countries are still fifteens dominated. We have to change their minds to recognise sevens is a sport in its own right."
After Dubai, the Series moves on to George, South Africa, on December 11-12 before heading to Wellington in February.