Long before the launch of the Sevens World Series in 1999 there is one place where Sevens has always been king. Hong Kong - a mecca of the shorter form of the game - where some of the greats first broke through.
Names like David Campese, Michael Lynagh, Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen all made pilgrimages to the So Kon Po Stadium on the way to great careers in the 15-man code. The Hong Kong 7s is now part of the wider Series and, of course, now a stop on the Olympic journey - but it has lost none of its lasting and iconic appeal to rugby players and fans alike. World record attendances at Twickenham, sell-out crowds in Dubai and Wellington, huge fancy dress parties all around the globe – it all owes a debt to the Hong Kong Sevens.
So who are the teams to watch out for this weekend at the famous old venue? In the main draw, it’s difficult to look past the top four.
Think the Hong Kong Sevens and think – Fiji. The South Sea Islanders have a love affair with this event – they’ve won it a staggering 14 times, including two Rugby World Cups. They are back-to-back defending champions and come off a sensational win in Tokyo last weekend dispatching South Africa and New Zealand along the way. In Samisoni Viriviri they boast the Series’ leading try-scorer and with the return of Pio Tuwai, coach Ben Ryan has brought back one of the real showmen of rugby Sevens. Some of Tuwai’s offloads really do have to be seen to be believed. Fiji have been near-on unplayable at times this season, as New Zealand have found out to their detriment on several occasions. If you can only make one bet this weekend – then place it on the flying Fijians!
Series leaders South Africa have reached five straight Cup finals this Series, and won two of them. They came up just short to a rampant Fijian side in Tokyo but the Blitzbokke are arguably the most balanced side in the Series and with Cecil Afrika returning to the squad this weekend – they are a good chance to extend their lead at the top of the standings. In their talisman Frankie Horne they have the most experienced player out there and with try machine Seabelo Senatla back on deck, the potential to score from anywhere. New head coach Neil Powell has made a big difference since taking over from Paul Treu. His squad is supremely fit and Powell has given them the freedom to show some natural flair alongside a razor sharp game structure. The Green Machine will no doubt be right in the mix at the end of Day three in Hong Kong, but they have never won the Sevens here.
Always a threat, more often than not, the favourite. The defending Series champions last won the Hong Kong title in 2011 and will be desperate to again lift the trophy this Sunday. New Zealand arrive in Hong Kong on the back of their worst finish on the World Series this season - beaten into fourth place by England in Tokyo. It will take a braver man than me to write of Gordon Tietjens Kiwis’ in any Sevens event, let alone in Hong Kong, but without Tomasi Cama and Lote Raikabula in the squad, they did look a little light in Tokyo. Huge responsibility falls on the shoulders of their vastly experienced captain DJ Forbes and current IRB 7s Player of the Year, Tim Mikkelson. Playmaker Gillies Kaka is still an injury doubt so it could be another baptism of fire in Hong Kong for young distributor Marty McKenzie. Whatever happens this weekend - the All Blacks Sevens’ race with South Africa and Fiji for the World Series title looks like going right down to the wire – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The last time England won in Hong Kong Mike Friday and Phil Greening were coaches, Simon Amor was captain and Ben Foden, David Strettle, Tom Varndell and Matthew Tait scored most of the tries. Ben Gollings kicked all the goals and scored the winning try. That was way back in 2006 so if they are to go all the way this weekend – it will break a seven-year drought. Simon Amor is now the coach and blooded four new faces last week in Tokyo. In former England under 20’s captain Jack Clifford, he looks to have unearthed a real gem. How long he can keep Clifford in the 7s setup is anyone’s guess, but the young Harlequins back rower looked right at home in Tokyo adding some much needed steel up front. Marcus Watson and Tom Mitchell provide great cutting edge and with the well-rapid Dan Norton looking back to his try scoring best – England are a real chance over the three days. It’s a big Hong Kong Sevens for James Rodwell - the towering forward plays his 50th consecutive SWS tournament this weekend and there would surely be no greater way to celebrate his achievement than with an England win at the biggest Sevens event of them all.
There is a separate 12-team Sevens World Series pre-qualification tournament which will also be held this weekend in Hong Kong. The winner will win core nation status and play on all nine events on next seasons SWS circuit. That translates into a lot of IRB funding for whatever developing nation takes out the final. The 12 teams (two from each of the six IRB regions) are American Samoa, Barbados, Chile, Cook Islands, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Russia, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Uruguay and Zimbabwe.
May the best team win!
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