Hong Kong Sevens Preview
After winning in Las Vegas and finishing fourth in Vancouver, team USA heads to Hong Kong as not only one of a handful teams thought capable of hoisting the cup, but arguably only Fiji would be thought more likely to do so. A victory in Hong Kong would mark the first time in American history that the Hong Kong Sevens crown could be claimed by the Eagles. To date, the highest finish for team USA was fourth place, last season. Prior to that, consecutive sixth-place finishes were as good as it got.
The biggest story heading into Hong Kong is playing out on an entirely different continent. One day before the historic HK7s gets underway, the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia will commence. Fans of the short code will recognize that means a problem. The following week, April 13–15, the Commonwealth Games will have its own sevens competition. First, that means this leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series will not be completed in consecutive weekends, as Singapore will not be until April 28. Second, most importantly, it has impacted the roster of the team atop the series standings: South Africa.
Historically, the Blitzbokke struggled at the Commonwealth Games, by their vaunted standards. It was a competition won by New Zealand from its inception in 1998 through 2010. And in that timespan, the Blitzbokke failed to finish higher than third. That changed in 2014, when South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final for the gold. As the defending gold medalists, South Africa has prioritized defending its Commonwealth Crown over trying to fend off Fiji in the series standings. As a result, South Africa is sending a second-tier squad to Hong Kong.
Of course, even a second-tier South Africa is a talented squad. The South Africa Academy swept through the Sudamérica Rugby Sevens competition in January. Despite winning both competitions in South America, it was not with ease. South Africa lost to Chile during pool play in Punta Del Este and then drew with Brazil and lost to Ireland in pool play at the Viña del Mar Sevens.
With attentions turning toward the Commonwealth Games, surging team USA and Argentina may be primed for a big outing. And Coach Mike Friday has chosen a unique traveling squad. He has tabbed fifteen men to go with him to Hong Kong: Perry Baker, Danny Barrett, Pat Blair, Martin Iosefo, Carlin Isles, Malon Al-Jiboori, Matai Leuta, Chris Mattina, Cody Melphy, Folau Niua, Ben Pinkelman, Brett Thompson, Stephen Tomasin, Maka Unufe, and Kevon Williams.
One thing you will note right away is that each man, with one exception, in that fifteen-man squad is a face you’ve seen this season. The one exception is Pat Blair, who, if selected, would win his first cap since the 2017 Canada Sevens. The other thing you’ll notice is that Maka Unufe and Stephen Tomasin are back. The only person from the last tournament not in the traveling party is Nick Boyer. Still out are Madison Hughes and Joe Schroeder. But the return of Tomasin is a major addition giving the Eagles a natural scrumhalf that it has been without since both him and Madison Hughes went down. Maka Unufe and Carlin Isles have served admirably in their absence, but Tomasin will be the first choice in that position for a reason.
It would seem that most of the spots in the twelve-man active roster are cemented: Baker, Barrett, Iosefo, Isles, Leuta, Niua, Pinkelman, Tomasin, and Unufe, barring injury, will be in that lineup. That leaves three spots up for grabs. Kevon Williams would also seem a safe bet after his recent run of form. The three most likely to miss the cut are Mattina, Thompson, and Blair. Until being called in for Vancouver, Thompson had not been in the lineup since 2015. Mattina, who has claimed four caps this season, was the thirteenth man for Vancouver, and called in due to injury. And Blair has not been in the lineup at all this year. If they are to supplant anyone, it would likely have to be Al-Jiboori or Cody Melphy. For those who do not make the roster, spots in the other Hong Kong Sevens competitions will be a nice consolation.
The Eagles have a very favorable draw for advancing to the cup round. They will start with France and Wales on Friday, then finish pool play against Argentina. The Argentines had proven a rough foe for the United States this year, claiming each meeting in the first three tournaments. Team USA won the last two meetings in New Zealand and then Vegas, with the latter coming in the cup final. In Vancouver, the two teams failed to face-off for the first time this season. In short, both teams know each other well and will be looking to win what should be the pool decider.
The difference between winning the pool and coming in second can be monumental. For the winner, a likely match against New Zealand awaits. Whereas the loser will probably meet an in-form Fiji.
But the World Series is not the only big event in Hong Kong. The annual Series qualifier will take place this weekend as well. Twelve teams will attempt to secure the right to join, or re-join, the Series as a core team: Ireland, Germany, Georgia, Hong Kong, Japan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Jamaica, Chile, and Uruguay.
This year’s competition is about as deep as it has ever been. Chile was a strong contender last season and will remain a major threat, but fellow South American’s Uruguay enter as the top seed from that continent and will be a tough out. From Asia, Japan and Hong Kong will also be tough outs. Japan has twice been relegated from the Series, but can be a world-beater when focused on winning, as Japan was in the Olympics, finishing fourth.
Coming out of Africa, Uganda will also be a team to watch. In two turns this season as the non-core invitee, Uganda beat Russia twice and Solomon Okia tied for most tries in Dubai with eight.
But the team I’d put my money on is Ireland. The highest finishing non-core team in the Europe Sevens Grand Prix Series, the Irish twice won the cup and claimed both the top points scorer and top try scorer through Billy Dardis and Jordan Conroy respectively. Having seen Ireland at the Silicon Valley Sevens, it is a team to watch to be sure. A pool match against Uruguay will likely tell us a lot about whether Ireland has come ready to join the Series.
The action gets under way on Friday (4/6) and will finish Sunday (4/8). Make sure to catch the matches on ESPN3.
ESPN Television and Digital Schedule
Day 1 (4/6):
- Live: 6-8am ET on ESPNU
- Tape-Delayed: 11:30pm-1:30am ET on ESPN2
Day 2 (4/7):
- Live 4-6am ET on ESPNews
- Tape Delayed: 12-2am ET on ESPN2 (technically 4/8 calendar day)
Day 3 (4/8):
- Live 5:30-7:30am ET on ESPN2
All remaining matches will be available live on ESPN 3
|Network||Title||Day||Date||Start Time (ET)||End Time (ET)|
|ESPNU||Day 1||Fri||4/6/18||6:00 AM||8:00 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN3||Day 1||Fri||4/6/18||8:00 AM||9:05 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN3||Day 2||Fri||4/6/18||11:14 PM||2:19 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN3||Day 2||Sat||4/7/18||3:16 AM||4:00 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPNews||Day 2||Sat||4/7/18||4:00 AM||6:00 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN3||Day 2||Sat||4/7/18||6:00 AM||6:22 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN3||Day 3||Sat||4/7/18||9:30 PM||12:35 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN3||Day 3||Sun||4/8/18||1:16 AM||2:51 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN3||Day 3||Sun||4/8/18||2:55 AM||4:25 AM||Watch ESPN|
|ESPN2||Day 3||Sun||4/8/18||5:30 AM||7:30 AM||Watch ESPN|