World Series leaders New Zealand are favourites to win the Hong Kong Sevens this weekend but in a season which has proved unpredictable there’s plenty of room for an upset.
Each of the previous five rounds of the International Rugby Board (IRB) World Sevens Series has been won by a different team, leaving the field wide open for Hong Kong – the most high-profile of the nine events on the calendar.
Rugby fans from all over the world will cram the sold-out 40,000-seater Hong Kong Stadium for three days from Friday, wearing fancy dress, chanting and partying at the city’s biggest annual sporting event.
“With the atmosphere and the vibe here, Hong Kong is regarded as the biggest tournament in the world,” said South Africa coach Paul Treu.
Second in the World Series overall standings, South Africa are one of the main challengers for the Hong Kong crown, which has the highest prize purse in international sevens at US$150,000.
“We’ve won all the tournaments all over the world, but for the past 20 years this one has eluded us. Hopefully we’ll have some luck this time around,” said Treu.
South Africa defeated New Zealand 40-21 to take the Las Vegas Sevens last month, but Treu remained cautious going into Hong Kong.
“The biggest mistake that you can make is to come off a win and expect to win. We need to keep our feet on the ground,” he said.
New Zealand, who have won the Hong Kong Sevens 10 times, have been in four of the five finals this season and took the title in Port Elizabeth in December.
They are 23 points clear in the overall standings but go into Hong Kong without playmaker Tomasi Cama, who has a groin injury.
“Injuries are why some teams have fluctuated in their performance [this series],” said coach Gordon Tietjens
“The key is to go into tournaments with a lot of depth on your bench.”
Defending champions Fiji beat New Zealand last year to take their record 13th title in Hong Kong and remain serious challengers, having won the Gold Coast round this series.
They are currently fourth in the overall standings, behind Samoa – who won in Dubai – in third place.
But with the pools stronger than ever across the board, the big names can’t afford to take things for granted.
“Teams are getting strong right throughout and are consistently very tough,” said Tietjens.
For injury-plagued England, who won in Wellington then failed to make it beyond the pool stages a week later in Las Vegas, the Hong Kong crowd could make all the difference.
“In Hong Kong we get so much support, it puts an extra spring in our step. It gives us an extra metre and probably an extra five points every game,” said coach Ben Ryan.
Sixteen teams will battle for the Hong Kong title, while 12 lower-ranked teams will fight separately for four places at the London Sevens in May and a chance to qualify for the IRB Sevens World Series next year.