Hong Kong 7s Preview
Rugby sevens was born at the end of the 19th century in Melrose, Scotland. Almost ninety years later, sevens found its true home in Hong Kong. Since 1976, the Hong Kong Sevens has been the premiere rugby sevens tournament, having twice played host to the World Cup. Hong Kong is one of only two–the USA Sevens in Las Vegas, the other–that spans three days. Historically, nations like Fiji and Samoa have coveted the HK title more than the series championship. With the series neck-and-neck at the top of the standings, the winner of HK will be poised to grab ahold of the series.
In recent years, Hong Kong has also played host to the World Series Qualifier. In 2013, Hong Kong served as a qualifier for the qualifier, which was held at the London Sevens. In 2013, Portugal earned its place on the series. In 2014, Japan bested Italy for the right to join the series. Last year, Russia edged by Zimbabwe. This year, the competition for the core team spot is as strong as it has ever been.
In the World Series competition, the pools are:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|New Zealand||South Africa||Australia||Fiji|
The pool standings are still feeling the shockwave that was Japan–a non-core team–reaching the quarterfinal in Las Vegas. Because Japan did not compete in Vancouver, the pool draws were skewed with Wales, which had not reached a cup round in over a year, sliding into a second seed in a pool. With only two sides from each pool advancing, unbalanced pools cause a serious rippling effect. Although Wales and Scotland have played better of late, neither side should readily be considered a top eight team. Indeed, in the standings they are 12th and 11th respectively. Nevertheless, the unbalanced pools leave easy paths for the fairly poor preforming British sides, leaving extremely difficult paths for teams in Pool A and Pool C.
Pool A is a top-to-bottom meat grinder. The All Blacks Sevens have won three of the last four tournaments and are the clear favorite to top Pool A. New Zealand has never failed to qualify for the cup round and would be the biggest shock on an upset minded series this season. The battle for second is anybody’s guess. Samoa looked in good form winning the plate in Vancouver, but was left hoisting the shield in Las Vegas. For the past two seasons, Samoa has been the picture of inconsistency.
The same can be said for Kenya. After a tumultuous season on and off the field last year, Kenya had been in the midst of a bounce-back season, reaching the cup round four times in five tournaments, finishing fourth in Cape Town, and defeating New Zealand in Las Vegas on Day 1. Then Day 2 in Vegas came. Kenya went winless on Day 2 and has only one victory since. The result was an abysmal last-place finish in Vancouver.
Perhaps more of an enigma than any other team on the series–though England is in the conversation–is France. France won the bowl in Dubai, finished third in Cape Town, shield champion in Wellington, and dead last in Sydney. In the North American tournaments, France twice lost in the bowl final.
So who will come out second in Pool A? If I were a betting man, I’d bet on Samoa. There is something magical about Hong Kong for the Samoans. Only twice did Samoa reach the cup round last year. The first was a final appearance in Dubai to start the season. The other was a fourth-place finish in Hong Kong. Only one other time did Samoa advance past the bowl semifinal. Although, there’s even a chance that Samoa, France, or Kenya puts a strong enough showing together that New Zealand slips to second, but not below, I think you can expect New Zealand to top the pool followed by Samoa.
Pool B is the first of the unbalanced pools. This is certainly a surprising statement to those still stuck in the past. Just last year, England clinched an Olympic bid for team Great Britain by finishing fourth in the series, and Scotland seventh. Last year, Scotland reached the cup round in six of nine tries. This year, Scotland reached the cup round in Canada and that’s it. Granted, Scotland beat Argentina to do so. Unlike Wales, there is little claim that Scotland did not earn its place. Nevertheless, like Wales, Scotland was swept out of the cup round without a win.
England’s season has strongly resembled Samoa’s a year ago. England lost to Fiji in Dubai to start the year and has gone down hill ever since. England bottomed out in Las Vegas with a humiliating last place finish. In Vancouver, England again failed to progress beyond the bowl semifinal. One would think English pride might result in a stronger showing in Hong Kong, but that is still to be seen.
South Africa, a side that has never won Hong Kong, enters a single series point behind leader Fiji and a single point in front of third-place New Zealand. The way South Africa has played this season makes the blitzbokke almost invincible in pool play. South Africa should dominate Pool B and look to advance. The decider should come down to the winner of Scotland and England. Russia has started to improve of late, but should still trail the three veteran nations.
Pool D is the most frustrating pool if your team is not in it. Despite a fourth-place finish in Vancouver, Fiji gets the easiest path. This looks like a pool that Fiji might top with a points differential exceeding +100. For team Canada, this is its best hope to reach the cup round on the season. The same was thought heading into the last tournament. In Vancouver, team Canada lost only a single match: 26–19 to Wales. Canada shocked Australia in pool play and then was the benefactor of the incredibly poor decision making of France in the bowl final. The second seed should come down to the winner of Canada and Wales. It is hard to keep a somewhat talented team down as long as team Canada has been. I expect that desire to be the slight edge that gets Canada through to the cup round.
As for South Korea, things will not be pretty. Since the adoption of the modern structure with fifteen core teams and a non-core invitee for each tournament, only Japan has ever won a match as a non-core invitee. Japan as a non-core team is a bit of a stretch. Japan was on the series last year, reaching the cup round in Tokyo. Japan has also competed in four of the six tournaments this season, reaching the plate final in Las Vegas. Moreover, the non-core invitee in Hong Kong is an even lower level team than usual. Because of the series qualifier, the nations with legitimate hopes of qualifying for the series avoid being the sacrificial lamb that South Korea will be. Every point scored by South Korea should rightly be considered a victory, and I expect the players will put their hearts on display to represent their nation. The lack of success will certainly not be a lack of driver, but long gone are the days of infrequent participants being able to compete at international levels.
Pool C is home to the United States. Though not as difficult as Pool A, Pool C poses a series danger to breaking the Eagles’ unprecedented cup-round streak. It has been almost exactly one calendar year since team USA won the bowl in Tokyo. Since then, the United States has not missed the cup round. Argentina and Australia pose a threat to continuing that streak. The Eagles start against Portugal and will need to get off on the right foot. A slip against Portugal will likely spell doom. A strong win over last-place–among core teams–Portugal and the United States should only need one win between Argentina and Australia to advance. The United States could surely beat all three opponents, but a loss to Australia seems the most likely outcome. Australia should be expected to top the pool with Argentina and the United States battling for second.
The number one goal is keeping the cup round streak alive. As I often say, success breads success on the series. Just look at what has happened with the unbalanced pools since Vegas. Topping Pool C, however, is a very important secondary goal. The winner of Pool C will draw the second seed from Pool B–likely England or Scotland–and avoid South Africa. A win over South Africa would be a notable upset. A win over England or Scotland would be expected. It is the difference between reaching the semifinals for the third time this year and competing for the plate.
Fortunately, the United States will be close to full strength after injuries ravaged the roster heading into Vancouver. As always, captain Madison Hughes leads the talented group. Last year, eight players competed in every leg of the series. This year, only three have been on every roster. Joining Hughes in that list is Folau Niua and Perry Baker. Baker is coming off a jaw-dropping performance in Vancouver. Baker has twice made the dream team, and although Vancouver was not one of the times, he did lead the tournament with eight tries. Claiming dream team honors in Vancouver was Martin Iosefo who was simply amazing.
Returning from the plate finalist squad in Vancouver is also Ben Pinkelman, Garrett Bender, and Nate Augspurger. Rejoining the squad is Carlin Isles who was permitted to compete in a track competition in hopes of qualifying for the Olympics in two disciplines. Back from injury are Maka Unufe and Zack Test, both lost in Vegas. Finally, returning to the squad for the first time since the 2014 Australia Sevens is Peter Tiberio. Fans of the Collegiate Rugby Championship will remember Tiberio as the star for Arizona that led his squad to 2012 CRC final against Madison Hughes’s Dartmouth squad, but broke his arm in the process.
The Eagles should be poised for a great stretch run to close the season, but will need a strong showing in Hong Kong to keep things going.
The action gets underway Friday (4/8) in and concludes on Sunday (4/10). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.