Rugby Sevens blow for defending champs Fiji
Islanders' captain Cakau and try-scoring machine Raqamate both injured, while Las Vegas winners South Africa are also struggling
A high attrition rate from injury has hit defending champions Fiji and perennial Cup under-achievers South Africa, throwing next week's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens wide open.
Fiji have lost inspirational captain Setefano Cakau who led them to glory last year. The 33-year-old Cakau, who has been a dominating force among the forwards this season, has failed to recover from a knee injury and has been ruled out of the sixth and seventh legs of the HSBC Sevens World Series in Hong Kong and Japan.
South Africa, chasing their first Cup victory in Hong Kong, will be missing three players from the squad who won the last leg in Las Vegas - Warren Whiteley, Pieter Engelbrecht and Cheslin Kolbe. Whiteley and Kolbe are unavailable after being recalled by their provincial teams , while Engelbrecht was not considered for selection after suffering a concussion last weekend at the Spar International Sevens in Harare where South African coach Paul Treu and his men warmed up for Hong Kong by winning the Cup.
This week, New Zealand also announced they will be missing a number of big-name players through injury, including playmaker Tomasi Cama, Kurt Baker, Toby Arnold and Scott Curry.
Cakau ruptured a medial ligament in his left knee in training and a Fiji rugby medical officer said: "He will have to go through a strict rehabilitation programme to help his knee heal in time for the London and Scotland 7s."
Game-breaker Cakau is not the only loss. Winger and try-scoring machine Joji Raqamate, a key member of the team who defeated New Zealand 35-28 in the Cup final, is also missing as is another forward Lepani Botia.
But coach Alifereti Dere will be able to draw upon Fiji's unending supply of natural sevens players and will be fielding three new faces - Sakiusa Vatuinaruku, Donasio Naturaga and Emosi Mulevoro.
Dere might be lacking in experience - the familiarity of playing in the cauldron-like atmosphere on the final day at Hong Kong Stadium - and will be hoping his squad settle down quickly as they seek a 14th title in Hong Kong (they have won 11 Cup titles plus two World Cups in 1997 and 2005).
Fiji are drawn with Canada, Spain and Hong Kong in the preliminary round and this will give Dere's team a relatively easy passage into the Cup quarter-finals. But nothing can be taken for granted with Canada stunning them in the Bowl final at the Wellington Sevens.
South Africa will arrive with the momentum of having won the last leg in Vegas but coach Treu has discounted that as being an advantage, saying everyone will start from a blank page in Hong Kong. But his dream is to break South Africa's long title-drought next week.
"The World Series is very competitive and it is very difficult to predict a winner," said Treu. "This season there have been five different winners for the five rounds of the world series, which just illustrates the point that Hong Kong will be an extremely difficult challenge."
Steven Hunt, who returned to action in Zimbabwe last weekend, will make his first world series appearance for the Blitzbokke since the Dubai tournament in December. Another fully fit player returning to the line-up is Justin Geduld, who has recovered from a hand injury. Free State flyer Jamba Ulengo also returns to the squad. Other players not considered because of injury were Kyle Brown, Cecil Afrika and Mark Richards.
Second-placed South Africa trail series leaders New Zealand (96 points) by 23 points. Fiji are fourth (66), behind Samoa (71).
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