The smiles are back in the South African camp. The return of talismanic leader Mzwandile Stick has been greeted with huge relief, especially by coach Paul Treu, who believes this is the year the Boks can finally break their Hong Kong duck.
'He brings a sense of calmness to the rest of the squad,' said Treu. 'His leadership is key. The way he organises the players on the field is what we have been lacking in the last couple of tournaments.'
Stick pulled his hamstring on the first day at the Wellington Sevens last month. He missed the San Diego leg of the series the following week and also the World Cup in Dubai.
'I'm 100 per cent right and ready to go,' said Stick. 'We have never won in Hong Kong. We came close last year, losing the final to New Zealand, but this is the year for us.'
It is no coincidence that, with the loss of their captain, South Africa's fortunes plummeted on the IRB circuit. They won the opening two legs in Dubai and George late last year, thanks to moments of inspiration from Stick. He drop-kicked a goal which knocked out Fiji in Dubai and then scored the winning try against New Zealand in George.
But with his absence, the team lost momentum. At the World Cup this month, South Africa were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Argentina.
'After success you tend to lose your focus,' Treu said. 'You tend to look at other things and not focus on what made you successful in the first place. But we have slowly started to regain what we lost. The last two weeks have been good and we are confident.'
Stick is one of two changes to the World Cup squad. The other is Chase Minnaar, who is the only uncapped player in a team where the captaincy duties will be shared by Stick, Neil Powell and Mpho Mbiyozo. 'We started well this season winning the first two tournaments and hopefully we can pick it up again,' Stick said. 'We have all the experience we need, and this is probably one of the strongest teams in the tournament. But we won't underrate any side.'
Treu said: 'We have worked really hard at what we believed were the shortcomings in Wellington, San Diego and the World Cup in Dubai. We are still joint leaders in the series and the guys are hungry to repeat the two good performances last year.
'It is good to have Stick back, but you can't always look at one player. One player does not make a team, and you can't expect too much from Stick. We've got to go out and make it a team effort like we did at the first two tournaments.'Topics: Dubai Geography Persian Gulf