Five different nations have won the five events so far in the HSBC Sevens World Series (HSBC SWS) making it very difficult to pick the winner in advance of the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens this weekend.
Although New Zealand lead the rankings, they won’t be heading into the iconic tournament as the team most-likely to win the Cup Final on Sunday March 24. Injuries are playing an important part in their campaign.
Of the 15 core teams that will compete in the Cup competition, South Africa and Samoa shape up as the in-form teams coming into the Hong Kong Sevens–on paper Samoa slightly shade South Africa, despite them having won the most recent tournament in the series.
Hosts Hong Kong complete the 16-team main competition in the Hong Kong Sevens.
The HSBC Asian Sevens Series champions won automatic qualification into the Hong Kong Sevens as well as qualifying for the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow in June. Accordingly, Hong Kong, while not as experienced as their more professional opponents, are expected to have the confidence to mix it with the “big boys”—especially before a parochial home crowd.
The 16-team Cup competition is divided equally into four pools, with teams having to finish first or second in their pool to advance to the Cup Quarter Finals.
HSBC SWS’s defending champions New Zealand, the undisputed best Sevens team in the world with 10 of the 13 IRB Sevens World Series titles, will struggle in Hong Kong.
As they did at last year’s Hong Kong Sevens, New Zealand have some injury concerns, with the All Blacks Sevens missing a number of top-line players. Labelled as a “crisis,” possibly the biggest omission is Tomasi Cama, last season’s IRB Sevens player of the year. Along with playmaker and goal-kicker Cama, Toby Arnold, Kurt Baker, Scott Curry, Mark Jackman and David Raikuna were also not considered because of injury. Two debutants in Matt Faddes and Trinity Spooner-Neera have been included in the 12-man squad.
To compound matters for the All Blacks, master coach Gordon Tietjens was unable to fly to Hong Kong with his team due to an ear infection. Although he is expected to arrive on Thursday (March 21), not having his presence during the preparations and build-up to their first match may hurt.
While the Round Four Wellington Sevens proved to be the only series’ Cup Final that they haven’t featured in so far this season, the Kiwis couldn’t be more-ripe for an early exit.
Of course the series’ leaders envious depth and quality may just as easily find them leading the way in adversity, while their new-comers gain valuable experience.
South Africa also have their injury problems with Pieter Engelbrecht, who competed in Las Vegas, not considered for selection because of concussion. Kyle Brown (ankle), Cecil Afrika (knee) and Mark Richards (Achilles) are also top-line players that will miss Hong Kong.
Despite these omissions, the Blitzbokkes have made just three changes from the team that crushed New Zealand 40-21 in the Round Five Cup Final at the USA Sevens to sit second in the series’ rankings.
Lacking a little consistency in this series, South Africa remain New Zealand’s biggest threat for the overall series title. They shouldn’t have any problems progressing to at least the Quarter Finals in Hong Kong though.
Samoa has also been having a good series. Winning the Cup Final in the Round Two, they have been playing consistent competitive rugby.
The Dubai Sevens champions, who sit third in the series standings, have recalled Paul Perez, the player to score their first try in the Dubai Final against New Zealand.
Samoa finished third in the USA Sevens, with England their biggest pool threat this tournament.
They, like South Africa, could make a run at the series title. To do so they will have to make the Hong Kong Cup theirs and become the first team to win two tournaments this season.
Last year’s Cup Final winners of the Hong Kong Sevens, Fiji, appear off the pace despite winning the opening round of the HSBC SWS. Injuries and line-up changes have taken their toll, but the cheeky Hong Kong specialists and defending champions should never be taken lightly.
While still sitting a credible fourth in the standings, Fiji’s season remains in the balance. This was emphasised when in Round Four, at the Wellington Sevens in New Zealand, they failed to reach the Quarter Finals for the first time in 130 tournament appearances. This shouldn’t happen in Hong Kong though.
Fiji came fourth in Round Five in Las Vegas after being defeated by Samoa.
France and Kenya
France, who are fifth in the standings, will be without the injured Terry Bouhraoua and may struggle to progress to the Quarter Finals with United States and, more importantly, New Zealand and Kenya in their pool.
Kenya in sixth place have valuable inclusions returning from injury to the line-up in Sidney Ashioya and Eden Agero. Billy Odhiambo and Patrice Agunda are also named in their 12-man squad. Collins Injera, the top try scorer for 2008-09 IRB Sevens World Series season, does not feature in the line-up, apparently omitted for disciplinary reasons.
Argentina and Wales
Argentina are seventh in the standings. They reached the Cup Semi-finals in their best performance this season in Round Three at the South Africa Sevens.
In what is probably the toughest pool to pick the second Quarter-finalist from, Argentina will meet Wales, Australia and South Africa.
Wales in eighth are the reigning 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens champions. They have won the Plate Final in Rounds Two and Three this season.
England, Canada and Australia
England, the Round Four winners in the New Zealand Sevens, are the least convincing of this season’s series winners so far. In ninth place, their performances in all-but that one tournament were poor. Having said that, they have won once this series and may do it again in Hong Kong if they can get through to the Quarter Finals, which they should do with only Samoa in their pool posing a realistic threat.
Canada in tenth, following a terrific performance when they won the Plate competition and finished fifth in the USA Sevens, will come into Hong Kong with a renewed confidence. Canada have few injuries and will be expecting a Quarter Finals appearance with Fiji, Hong Kong and Spain in their pool.
Australia’s coach, Michael O’Connor, believes he has a strong line-up ready for Hong Kong. Replacing the injured Jordan Tuapou and Peter Lee is former Australian Sevens player James Stannard and uncapped Simon Morahan. Ranked eleventh in the series, Australia has under-performed. They’ll be lucky to reach the Quarter Finals in their tough pool.
Scotland and Portugal
Scotland in twelfth and Portugal in fourteenth are in the same pool as England and Samoa. Assuming that Samoa progresses, should the inconsistent and unpredictable England fail to find their run, Scotland seems the most-likely Quarter Finalist in their pool.
United States and Spain
The US Eagles Sevens team has had two changes from the Round Five tournament that they hosted in Las Vegas. The thirteenth placed team have recalled Mike Palefau and Brett Thompson following their best performance this season where they reached the Plate Semi-finals. With New Zealand, France and Kenya in their pool, progressing in Hong Kong will be a tough task.
Spain, bringing up the rear in the competing team’s standings in fifteenth place have little hope of progressing, with Fiji, Canada and Hong Kong in their pool.
There is a lot at stake for the 28 teams in the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
In addition to the prestigious title, a total US$150,000 (HK$1.16 million) is divided up with the Cup Champions winning US$100,000 (HK$776,000) the Cup Runner-ups winning US$25,000 (HK$194,000) and Semi-finalists each winning US$12,500 (HK$97,000).
Meanwhile, alongside the 16-team main Cup competition, the Hong Kong Sevens includes a 12-team regional competition—two teams from each of the International Rugby Board regions—who will compete for one of four places in the London Sevens. There, three teams will be elevated to the core team competition of the 2013-14 HSBC SWS.
Following on from teams being elevated, points for matches won in the HSBC SWS are also invaluable in the battle to avoid relegation next season. So, although teams may be out of contention for the overall series title, there remains a great deal to play for.
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