The Rush hour is about to start again. Evergreen New Zealand captain Eric Rush, 38, is back for one more tilt at the windmills of the Hong Kong Sevens - which kicks off on Friday at Hong Kong Stadium.
While organisers reshuffled the 24 teams into a revised draw following the withdrawal of Argentina, France and Italy, Rush looked in peak condition as New Zealand belatedly found their feet in the SAR yesterday.
Traditionally the first team to come to Hong Kong every year, New Zealand delayed their arrival this time by 48 hours due to the pneumonia outbreak. But having arrived late on Monday night, Rush and company were quickly into action mode as they prolonged their first training session.
'We have to start from scratch. It's been a while since the last sevens tournament and we need to begin again. We had three or four sessions before we came to Hong Kong but it is important to get used to the conditions here,' he said.
Six weeks have passed since New Zealand defeated England 38-26 in the final of the Wellington Sevens. The cancellation of the Chile leg of the IRB Sevens since then has seen core sides like New Zealand enjoying an enforced holiday. That came to an end yesterday as coach Gordon Tietjens pushed his 12-strong squad through a strenuous two-hour session.
'We were very lucky to win in Wellington. We could have lost to Samoa in the quarter-finals and Fiji in the semis. But we scraped through into the final against England. In the final the lead changed hands five times and we were lucky to win,' Tietjens said.
His rigorous training session implied that he does not want luck to play any part as New Zealand go hunting a ninth Hong Kong Sevens title and a sixth one for Rush. 'This is my 15th Hong Kong Sevens. I have been here 16 times, missing out only in 2001 when I was on the sidelines with a broken leg. This is my 16th time in Hong Kong . . . if you say it quick it doesn't sound all that long,' joked Rush.
Rush will have the experienced Karl Te Nana - Player of the Tournament in 2000 and 2001 - Craig de Goldi and Amasio Valence around him. They have also brought four new faces to Hong Kong: Charles Baxter, Roy Kinikinilau, Nathaniel Walker and Liam Messam. Tietjens picked Messam as the player to watch out for.
While the Kiwis trained, Sevens organisers reshuffled the draw and named fresh pools for the three-day event, the showpiece of the 2003 IRB Sevens calendar. This had to be done due to teams pulling out. Namibia and Tonga were joined by the Netherlands as the replacement teams.
There was no requirement for a full event redraw, team positions had been adjusted to suit the current IRB Sevens standings which were based on performances in the last six tournaments, said tournament director Peter Burbidge-King.
Hong Kong were originally grouped with Australia, Wales and China in Pool D. But the revised draw will now see Kenya replacing Wales in the pool. This left Hong Kong coach Chris Roden slightly disappointed as the SAR had fancied their chances against the European nation.
'We were looking forward to playing against Wales. Kenya will be a different challenge, they will be faster and maybe more dangerous. It is a bit of a disappointment,' said Roden.
Hong Kong lack players with genuine pace to counter the Kenyan threat. They would have preferred coming up against sides more physical in nature than out-and-out speedsters.
Speed is something which is at a premium with Rush, too. But his vision for the game and his years of experience will amply compensate. Last year, Rush ended a beaten and broken man. New Zealand were knocked out by Fiji in the Cup semi-finals 10-7 with Rush, who cracked a wrist, being replaced two minutes into the second half. Time has healed those wounds. Yesterday he was back, hungry for another title and eager to remind everyone that Rush hour is not over yet.
Pool A: New Zealand, Namibia, USA, Malaysia.
Pool B: England, Tonga, Taiwan, Singapore.
Pool C: Fiji, Canada, Japan, Russia.
Pool D: Australia, Kenya, Hong Kong, China.
Pool E: South Africa, Scotland, Korea, Sri Lanka.
Pool F: Samoa, Wales, Cook Islands, Netherlands.