Samoa deal rare loss to England
If it was really the Pool of Death then England had forgotten to pay the ferryman extra to carry their opponents across the River Styx. They stumbled against Samoa in their final pool game last night.
Despite losing captain Uale Mai midway through the first half, Samoa dug deep to pull off a tense 14-12 victory over England. But only pride was dented for the crowd favourites who still progressed through to today's Cup quarter-finals.
'It's always nice to win and keep momentum, but the main thing is we are still in the tournament,' England coach Ben Ryan said.
Perhaps the stars are aligning themselves behind England and Ryan as it is his first defeat in a pool game since he has been in charge.
'This is the first time we have lost a pool game in the six years since I have been coach,' Ryan said. 'It was very close and we had a load of chances. We will need to be more clinical and take our chances tomorrow.'
Winning pool games in the past has not resulted in England winning the Cup. Maybe this sparks a change of fortune.
On paper, England seem to have the more favourable draw, coming up against Australia. But Ryan is wary of the threat posed by the young Wallaby hopefuls, unrecognisable in a new green uniform. The famous gold was missing, but Aussie fans will be hoping that will be shown in the playing standards.
If England survive the Australians, they will then most probably meet Fiji, who have to deal with Argentina in their quarter-final. While the rest of the big guns have had to come through a gauntlet of fire in the pool competition, Fiji have been in cruise mode.
The bottom half of the draw has the makings of a bar-room brawl with Samoa taking on South Africa and defending champions New Zealand up against Wales.
Samoa coach Stephen Betham admitted it would be a no-holds barred contest in the bottom half of the group, but was happy that his team, winners of the last leg in the world series in Las Vegas, seemed to be spoiling for a fight.
'I'm very happy we beat England, especially in Hong Kong where it seems they have eight men on the field because of the crowd,' Betham said. 'But that victory doesn't mean anything tomorrow.'
Samoan captain Mai limped off the field with a suspected ankle injury. His absence might harm Samoa's hopes of making it two series wins on the trot. But Betham remained confident.
'We will see how Uale is tomorrow morning and assess the situation. But this same thing happened to us in Las Vegas and the younger guys stepped up. We are in the Cup competition, we will give it a go,' said Betham.
Like England, the omens look good for Samoa, too.
New Zealand coasted into the last eight with wins over Wales (24-7) and South Africa (19-10). They meet Wales again first-up with coach Gordon Tietjens hoping his side will improve their work at the breakdown.
Wales exposed New Zealand's weakness in this area, outmuscling the champions. Better use of the possession might have given the Kiwis problems, but luckily for them that did not materialise.
'We were challenged and didn't show up at the rucks,' lamented Tietjens, a stickler for gilt-edged performances. He must have had a word or three to say, for D.J. Forbes and his men looked more composed in the next game against South Africa.
What was most pleasing for Tietjens was that his younger players - eight of them Hong Kong novices - raised their game when it mattered. These included Jack Wilson, drafted in from the Samurai team at the Tens last week, as a last-minute replacement for Lote Raikabula.
The Kiwis completed their pool unconquered, but, as Tietjens said, 'it starts all over again tomorrow'.
South Africa captain Kyle Brown could not agree more. Although sore from losing to the men in black, he was still upbeat.
'Every loss hurts, especially our momentum,' Brown said. 'But we will be back tomorrow. Unfortunately we didn't stick to our plan today.'
No wonder South Africa coach Paul Treu stormed off after the game. Like England counterpart Ryan, he is also searching for a first Cup success, not only personally, but for South Africa as well. At least in England's case, they have won this tournament four times.
But it is becoming a distant memory - the last win being in 2006 - and Ryan will be hoping everything goes to plan today.
A lot could depend on flying winger Norton who almost single-handedly accounted for Kenya with a hat-trick of tries. Norton has easily been the outstanding player at the top end of the tournament. His smooth acceleration saw him become the joint top try-scorer in the world series this season, alongside absent Kiwi star Frank Halai who has 27 touchdowns.
Norton, one of the players in the England set-up contracted to play sevens by the RFU. A few weeks ago, Norton clocked 4.8 seconds for the 40 metres, running into a head wind.
Norton celebrated his 24th birthday in Hong Kong on Thursday. It was a quiet party. The big one could be tonight, but they know there are plenty of party-poopers around.