Hong Kong is welcoming 40 international teams across the three competitions on offer this weekend, including the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament (16 teams) and the World Rugby Men’s and Women’s Sevens Series Qualifiers (12 teams each).
Heroes have been discovered and careers have been launched at the Hong Kong Sevens and, as fate would have it, the 2018 edition will continue to chart the future of the game over the next decade.
The main reason is that this season has thrown up a sevens calendar that is overflowing with challenges. From Hong Kong, some teams will be immediately travelling to Australia’s Gold Coast for the Commonwealth Games, before a return to Series action at the HSBC Singapore Sevens at the end of April.
Then there is the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco in July so it is little wonder that all the squads gathered here this week have one eye on victory come Sunday, and one eye on what lies just around the corner. It makes for an intriguing mix and plenty of early speculation as to how the drama might play out.
Fiji are looking for a record fourth victory in a row in Hong Kong, and coming off a win in the last Series leg in Vancouver that moved them into prime position behind table leaders South Africa with Hong Kong, and then three legs to go.
So Fiji are locked and loaded with a squad boasting Jerry Tuwai as captain and a wealth of World Series experience, but in drawing Pool A, they seem also to have drawn a whole mess of trouble what with fierce rivals New Zealand, Samoa and Russia out to make life difficult for the flying Fijians.
South Africa, in the meantime, are among the nations who have chosen to split their squad between Hong Kong and the Commonwealths. The Blitzbokke saw it all coming a few years ago and have been training their seniors with their juniors in preparation for the year ahead.
Hong Kong fans will welcome the next generation from the nation that last season made the World Series all their own, winning five of the 10 legs and then the title by 28 points. They are being led this weekend by an experienced hand in Dewald Human, and they’ll need him to draw on exactly that in a Pool C that features England, Scotland and the unknown quantity in South Korea.
With so many distractions for the other squads – it may be time for the USA to make good on the promise they have shown in flashes at the Hong Kong Stadium over past editions. They certainly have the star power in former NFL player Perry Baker, who leads the World Series try-scoring table entering Hong Kong with 32 and always seems to grow an extra leg at the Hong Kong Stadium.
But the irony is that while some squads minds might be on the Gold Coast already, the Americans have two full-strength, non-Commonwealth nations in France and Argentina to face in Pool D, along with Wales.
Argentina have twice been runners-up this season – losing to New Zealand in Cape Town (38-14) and to the USA in Las Vegas (28-0) – and are poised to make their own breakthrough in Hong Kong.
As are Kenya, beaten in the Cup final by Fiji in Canada and throwing themselves full tilt at April with a full-strength squad.
Canada and Spain will test but probably not overwhelm the Kenyans and then there is the mystery surrounding their final Pool foes in Australia, who are sending a squad of youngsters hoping to force their way into serious – and extended – contention in a team that broke through for their first World Series win in six years in Sydney in January.
So close in terms of talent are the teams vying to rise up out of the 12-team HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier that it is impossible to pick a favourite. Much of the early attention will be on Paul John and his Hong Kong squad as they try once again to qualify for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
“The quality of the teams in the qualifiers is excellent and it is up to us to keep up with those standards so we can give ourselves a fighting chance,” said John when the draw was announced.
Fate has not been kind to the locals at their home event, what with a Pool F draw that will pit them against Papua New Guinea – fresh from appearances in the Sydney and Hamilton legs of the World Series – as well as Germany, who eliminated Hong Kong 14-7 in the knockout stages last year, and Zimbabwe, who in 2012 looked to have won the event with one minute to go against Portugal only to let in two tries to lose 21-17.
Over in Pool E, Hong Kong’s long-time nemesis Japan won’t have things all their way either, as they must steer a course past the ever-improving Chile, Georgia and a passionate Ugandan outfit.
Ugandan vice-captain Phillip Wokorach, who saw his team dumped out at the quarter-final stage last year by Papua New Guinea, summed up exactly how much the Qualifier means: “Gaining core status would completely change our lives and rugby in Uganda,” Wokorach told press back home.
Outside of the locals the fairytale might come from – who else? – the Irish. Lost in the sevens wilderness and absent from Hong Kong since 2000, they have regrouped since their short-form programme was rebooted in 2015. They have been growing in stature with every outing, qualifying for Hong Kong with a second-place finish behind Series team Russia in the European competition.
“The boys have been looking forward to this for a couple of years now and they are really excited
about the opportunity to play in the World Series qualifying event, but also just to experience the whole Hong Kong Sevens atmosphere which is always well regarded and well known,” said coach Anthony Eddy.
It will be a tough task, given the fact that their Pool G features Uruguay – another team to have tasted World Series action this season [in Las Vegas and Vancouver] – alongside Jamaica and the Cook Islands.
“It has been some time since we have been here while numerous teams have been in the
repechage for the last four or five years trying to achieve what we are trying to. We certainly have some exciting talent and hopefully we get a chance to perform and people can appreciate how far we have come,” said Eddy.
The depth of talent doesn’t stop at the men’s competitions either with a strong argument to be made that the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Qualifier will be the most fiercely contested silverware this week.
Consider the facts… Twelve teams are vying for the solitary spot on next season’s Series, many of them primed also for assaults this year on the World Cup in July and the Asian Games in August.
The draw has thrown some fierce rivals up against each other in the early exchanges and a change in format means that those teams who make it through to the quarter-finals will get the opportunity to play in front of the 40,000 expected at the Hong Kong Stadium come Friday.
How’s that for starters?
A Stadium appearance would be a first for Hong Kong, should they make it out of a Pool B that features Brazil and familiar Asian rivals China and Kazakhstan.
“We’re in a good position because we’ve played them all before,” said winger Natasha Olson-Thorne.
“It’s always good to know your opponents … we just have to play our style. Our goal is to – minimum – make it to the quarter-finals and play in the stadium. Hopefully we can get to the final, too.”
Pool A will feature a South African outfit still smarting from last year’s 22-10 loss to Japan in the final.
They have been bolstered by the return from injury of SA Rugby Women’s Player of the Year, Marithy Pienaar, as they look to erase that memory in (another) tough Pool that also features Kenya, Papua New Guinea and Mexico.
“Experience will help a lot as it will settle the nerves when the big moments arrive,” said coach Paul Delport before the squad headed to Hong Kong.
“We have two massive tournaments in the next three weeks. We need to qualify as a core team in order to take our programme to the next level, while the team will also be part of the first ever Rugby Sevens Women event at the Commonwealth Games.”
Kenya are following the same path with a similar mindset after their disappointment at being
knocked out by Italy in a surprise quarter-final loss last year.
Coach Kevin Wambua has made no secret of where his focus lies this month: “It (Hong Kong) is very important for us, even bigger than the Commonwealth Games. I mean, we are still humble and proud to be participating at the Commonwealth Games but Hong Kong has been our goal and focus all through,” Wambua told Kenyan media recently.
The fact that the South Africans beat Kenya to the African Sevens title last year adds extra spice to the Pool play.
Rounding out the women’s action is a Pool that will feature Wales, Belgium, Argentina and debutants Poland.
–Hong Kong Rugby Union