Halai's absence deals Kiwis a major blow
New Zealand will be missing lethal weapon Frank Halai when they defend their crown at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens this weekend.
Halai, the top try-scorer in the HSBC Sevens World Series this season, has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. His absence will be a major blow for coach Gordon Tietjens, who will also miss the services of playmaker Toby Arnold and veteran forward Solomon King also through injury.
While Halai's deadly finishing skills will be sorely missed - he has scored 27 tries in five tournaments - the player whose absence could be most crucial is Arnold, who has been a source of inspiration. But Tietjens is fortunate he has enough cover in players such as skipper DJ Forbes, Tomasi Cama, the season's leading points-scorer with 215, and Lote Raikabula, who can all easily slip into the role of creator.
'Toby injured his knee in the first minute of the first game in Wellington and unfortunately hasn't recovered. We have also lost Frank but the rest of the squad is fit and ready,' Tietjens said. Both Arnold and Halai were part of the squad which won in Hong Kong last year. 'I have a fantastic leader in DJ Forbes who just leads by the way he plays,' Tietjens said. 'He demands a lot of respect amongst all the teams and is very, very good at what he does. He is such an inspiration to the other players around him and is one of the contributing factors in why my team is winning at the moment.'
Halai's injury gives Auckland teenager Lolagi Visinia the opportunity to make his sevens debut. The 19-year-old is the only newcomer to the squad but Waikato's Joe Webber has also been called in to replace Arnold. New Zealand are top of the standings in the world series, leading second-placed Fiji by five points and Tietjens is hoping to stretch their lead in a restructured tournament where, for the first time, the top 12 teams will play in their own bubble.
'It is getting tougher with six or seven teams that could win it and there are no games that are a given. We treat every game we play as if it was a final,' Tietjens said. 'We have a particularly tough pool in South Africa, Wales and the US so you have to get out there and play consistently all the time. If you drop your guard, any team can turn around and beat you. That is the reality of sevens today.
'We see Hong Kong, which is a favourite of ours, as a major tournament as this will put us three-quarters of the way through the series. Winning Hong Kong is crucial so we can stretch our lead.'
New Zealand, who beat England 29-17 to win the Cup last year, have won two legs of the series this year - in Port Elizabeth and Wellington. Fiji, England and Samoa have won the other legs.
Tomasi Cama, DJ Forbes, Bryce Heem, Mark Jackman, Tim Mikkelson, Waisake Naholo, Kylem O'Donnell, Charles Piutau, Lote Raikabula, Ardie Savea, Lolagi Visinia, Joe Webber