Hong Kong 7s Preview
On the HSBC Sevens World Series calendar, there are only two tournaments that have the honor of covering three days instead of the usual two. The first in the season calendar is the annual spectacle in Las Vegas. The second comes upon us this weekend from the sport’s honorary home: Hong Kong. Competed annually since 1976, the 2017 installment of the Hong Kong Sevens is the 42nd edition of the legendary tournament.
In the long history of Hong Kong, one statistical anomaly stands out. That anomaly is the number zero. That is the number of times South Africa has won Hong Kong. At the close of the 2008–09 season, South Africa became only the third team to ever win the Sevens Series title, a group joined by Samoa the following year and no new nations since. In 1997, South Africa lost a tough final to Fiji (24–21), and with it the Rugby World Cup Sevens crown. In 2008, New Zealand finished off South Africa (26–12) in the final. Once more, in 2009, South Africa reached the final, but again lost a hard fought match to Fiji (26–24).
Since finishing as the series champion and runner-up in HK in 2009, South Africa has finished second in the final series standings five times and look to be the prohibitive favorite to win the series this year. However, in that same span, South Africa has finished 6th, 5th, 3rd, 11th, 5th, 3rd, and 3rd. Despite a sound defeat to England in Vancouver, South Africa enters Hong Kong with as realistic a chance of breaking the winless streak as the Blitzbokke have ever carried into the tournament.
The pool draw should certainly help get South Africa started on the right foot:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
Pool A is home to the red-hot England. In a season otherwise dominated by South Africa, one team has stood a worthy challenger: England. In thirty-six matches this season, South Africa has posted an astonishing 32–1–3 record. Against England, South Africa has gone 1–1–3. England is also no stranger to success in Hong Kong. England has won HK four times, all accumulated in a dominant five-tournament run from 2002 through 2006, the lone miss coming in the 2005 World Cup. England has reached the final twice since (2011 & 2014).
England will be heavily favored to top Pool A. Despite a proud history at Hong Kong, including three cup victories (1993, 2007 & 2010), Samoa has proven to be miles behind where it needs to be to compete with England’s recent form. An extra month under the tutelage of Sir Gordon Tietjens will likely show dramatic improvement, but Samoa should be expected to fall to England. Similarly, Australia’s yoyo season that has spanned from finishing eleventh in Cape Town to fourth in Sydney looks to continue with an expected loss to England. The second seed in the pool should come down to the winner of Australia vs. Samoa.
South Korea fills the spot as the non-core invitee. Although the non-core invitees tend to be savaged by the series regulars, Hong Kong invitees are more vulnerable than others. Since the start of the 2014–15 season, non-core invitees across the series have posted a record of 7–1–116. Four of those wins and the draw come from Japan last year, a season removed from core team status. The other three come from Uganda (2) and Chile (1) this year.
At Hong Kong, the quality of non-core invitee drops, because the best non-core teams compete in the qualifying tournament that runs alongside.
Pool B is a challenging pool, but should easily be topped by South Africa. Each of the other three teams–Canada, Kenya, and France–are dangerous squads, but lack the horses to win a race against the Blitzboks. The battle for the second seed in Pool B is very tough to pick. It seems entirely likely that it will be decided by points differential after each team finishes 1–2. Canada is working with the hot hand, but France will be looking to bounce back strong from an atrocious last-place finish in Vancouver. It will come down to the bounce of the ball on the day.
Pool C is topped by HK7s bluebloods. New Zealand and Fiji have combined for 8 of the last 9 HK titles and have met in the final the last two seasons. Drawing from the same pool, there is a strong chance that the teams make it three straight years. Japan will play tough as the team faces relegation unless it can turn things around. Wales is the lone wildcard. Despite a fairly resurgent season, Fiji should prove too much for Wales. In theory, Wales could supplant New Zealand, but history is on the side of the All Blacks Sevens as the only team to never miss a quarterfinal on the series.
Pool D is topped by team USA looking for a first-ever semifinal appearance in Hong Kong. The Americans delighted fans in their last two tournaments, each leading to an increasingly common semifinal appearance for a nation that had only reached three semifinals ever prior to start of the 2014–15 season, and has reached eight since. Argentina and Scotland, however, pose major impediments to the Eagles even advancing out of pool play. The Americans faced Argentina in the last two quarterfinals, each time coming away with narrow victories. What would be a fourth-consecutive victory over a tough matchup like Argentina is a tall order. Scotland, similarly is a team to be feared. Scotland won the 2016 London Sevens and started 2016–17 strong, finishing 6th, 4th, and 3rd. Since then, however, Scotland has crashed hard, finishing last, 11th, and 13th.
Despite Russia managing to edge an injury-depleted team USA to close pool play in Sydney after the Eagles had already clinched the top seed in the pool, the simple fact is that the United States should slide by Russia without much trouble, assuming recent form holds.
Coach Friday has largely named the same squad from Las Vegas/Vancouver, sounding only two changes. One of those changes, however, might signal a huge bump up for team USA. Pat Blair and Walt Elder have been replaced by Mike Te’o and Anthony Welmers. Welmers made his debut in Cape Town, having been called into the lineup when Madison Hughes departed early for a much-needed break. Te’o is a veteran of the sevens squad but has not been on the team since the 2014 Scotland Sevens. In the interim, Te’o has become a standout, versatile player for the XVs squad and will bring an important addition of world-class athleticism to the team.
Leading the squad as usual is Hughes, who is joined by Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, Andrew Durutalo, Perry Baker, Danny Barrett, Martin Iosefo, Ben Pinkelman, Stephen Tomasin, and Matai Leuta, each returning from the highly successful Vegas and Vancouver lineups. Tabbed as the injury replacement, as he was for Vegas and Vancouver, is Malon Al-Jiboori who will be competing in the Hong Kong 10s competition, barring need to join the main squad.
The action gets underway on Friday (4/7) and concludes on Sunday (4/9). Check back for a breakdown of the 2017 Hong Kong Sevens.