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Former England Sevens captain Rob Vickerman previews the forthcoming Hong Kong Sevens.
The rugby public generally cite Hong Kong as the most known Sevens event, and it is often on the bucket list of rugby fans worldwide such is the prestige of the event.
The strap line for the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens is that it is where the world comes to party, and for anyone that witnesses the venue – be it live, on television or social channels they wouldn’t disagree with that claim. It is truly quite a unique environment where there is as much expectation for the rugby as there is for the atmosphere.
Calm before the storm
As most players having been drip-feeding the impressive vistas of the Island from the mainland hotel base on their social media, it is only when you run out in the carved out stadium in So Kon Po that you realsie the magnitude and scale of the event. This year, as with the previous few, it is a bumped up version as 72 games will be played across three days of rugby meaning not just the men’s HSBC World Series will be on show, but also the pressure cauldron that are the qualifier tournaments. Win those, and you get a seat at the best dinner table in rugby – eight and 10 World Series events next year for the women and men respectively.
One for the future
Hong Kong has been awarded another four years on the series as part of the tender process as announced by World Rugby. The growth of the game globally and widespread success of the game of Sevens is largely down to how it is represented so well by both the men and women. Next season will see six of the events being jointly run, putting the world’s best Sevens players from either gender on show in stadiums all around the planet. This has obviously been met with some excitement, and rightly so.
In the last three years there have been moments of both agony and sheer elation in the men’s qualifiers, often in the last play, and with tension building up throughout the knockout stages to the gripping finals. There are so many contenders for the ‘golden ticket’, and with Russia wanting to reclaim their place as a core team; the likes of Ireland, Germany and Chile will be scrapping it out to rise to the occasion.
Hong Kong, so often buckling at the key stages of the tournament yet again has home disadvantage by having to think about this tournament for the last 12 months. There will be clearly those that live for this moment but with so many successive failures, it is becoming a real hoodoo for them, and one they are keen to stop reoccurring. For the women, it is much more of an open contest as any one of the teams can make the cut, but Kenya have looked strong in previous years.
There aren’t many tournaments where Fiji are not supported well, but the Fijians cite Hong Kong as a second home, almost a spiritual destination that all of the players grew up watching. Stemmed from the glory days of the great Waisale Serevi and his compatriots making some wonderful statements of sevens, often with mind-boggling plays, the players lift their game – and aim to do so once again this time chasing an incredible fifth-consecutive title. This has never been achieved before, and certainly poses a significant challenge from the Pacific Islanders. They will know they enter this tournament winning 17 of the events in Hong Kong Sevens history.
Podium placing penciled in
The top three teams are now looking settled which a good performance in this next Asian couplet would cement (Singapore is next week). The teams all know this, and while even the top ranked USA team are citing fear and doubt as traits to avoid, the rest of the teams beneath know that it is becoming ‘do or next stage to qualify.’ The battle for fourth place between England and South Africa is a brilliant sub-plot to the series. With South Africa winning in Vancouver, for the first time, it is now over to England to rekindle a title that was once expected to be theirs in the early 2000’s, claiming four wins in five years, as to now seeking their first final in five years.
So often when draws are made there is a search for the infamous ‘group of death.’ As Sevens proves regularly, most teams are capable of beating each other - but this leg sees Pool C catch the eye. Placing Fiji, New Zealand and Australia together makes for an eye-watering test, but no one in the other pools will be wiping foreheads, as England, in particular, will have to contend with top seeds USA, and a Spanish team that claimed their first-ever victory over New Zealand at Canada 7’s. That most certainly fills a belief tank – but I expect England to pull through and hopefully meet South Africa in the quarters to best increase their chances of breaking the top four once again.