Referee Matt Rodden leads the way for Hong Kong in intriguing World Rugby Sevens Series
The 27-year-old oversees four legs as the likes of New Zealand and Fiji look to continue their dominance with new coaches
The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2016-17 kicks off in Dubai on Friday and will have a distinct Hong Kong flavour.
Firstly, Hong Kong have secured a spot in the main draw of the Singapore tournament through their efforts in the Asia Rugby Sevens Series.
On top of that, Matt Rodden becomes the first Hong Kong-based referee to officiate the series on a permanent basis.
The New Zealander has been chosen as one of 21 members on the refereeing panel and will take charge in four legs – Wellington, Sydney, Hong Kong and Singapore.
He follows in the footsteps of fellow Hong Kong referee and one of his role models Gabriel Lee Wing-yi, who has refereed women’s rugby at the Olympics and on the women’s world series.
Rodden has officiated in Hong Kong for four years after first picking up a whistle in Wellington.
This year, he oversaw the qualifying tournament in Hong Kong and his first world series tournament in Singapore and is looking forward to continuing his dream where it all began.
“It’s nice to be able to go home and referee in front of my family and friends,” Rodden said.
“I have always wanted to be a referee, even when I was young I dreamed of being a referee. Sevens is my passion, I really enjoy refereeing sevens.”
Many referees see sevens as a pathway to 15s and it is for this reason that only three of last season’s panel remain for the 2016-17 series.
“I’d like to firstly establish myself on the sevens series if possible and then the Olympics will be a fantastic experience if I’m lucky enough to get there,” Rodden said.
“I’d like to in the future have a bit of a crack at 15s as well, but for now I’m just focussing on sevens.”
Rodden’s appointment is another step forward for Hong Kong referees and the 27-year-old hopes he can inspire others.
“I consider myself a Hong Kong referee even though I’m from New Zealand,” Rodden said.
“I’m excited for myself but for me it’s about opening doors for the next generation to follow. That is more of a reward for me, to see that happen in the future, hopefully.”
The early rounds of the 2016-17 series are set to be loaded with intrigue, with the sports’ success at the Olympics sure to have an impact.
Sevens lit up Rio, with the game resonating with people from all corners of the globe, and it will be interesting to see just what effect this has on crowds throughout the series.
Again it is expected the likes of New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa will lead the way, but Fiji and New Zealand in particular are somewhat of an unknown.
With coach Ben Ryan stepping down after masterminding Fiji’s rise to Olympic glory, it will be interesting to see whether ex-Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber can continue the golden era.
Compounding things, Baber won’t join the side until round three in Wellington, with Naca Cawanibuka, who was fitness coach under Ryan, to steer the ship in the interim.
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For an unpredictable side like Fiji that thrived on the stability provided by Ryan, this drawn out transition could well be unsettling.
For New Zealand, the fact they have a new coach for the first time in 22 years after Gordon Tietjens stepped down is cause for some uncertainty.
They also face a lengthy handover, with former players Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama overseeing their world series bid before former Scotland sevens player Clark Laidlaw takes the reigns in June next year.
The duo are tasked with immediately turning the side around after a disappointing quarter-final exit in Rio and anything less than a top-three berth will be seen as a failure.
Further adding to the intrigue is the fact Tietjens is coaching Samoa and will be hopeful of having an big impact with last year’s ninth-placed finishers.
A bit closer to home, Japan are eager to turn their latest promotion into a lengthy stay at the top after dropping out after one season last time around.
After a couple of solid efforts as the invited side last season and their unexpected fourth-place finish at this year’s Olympics, they could well do this as they look to continue their rise in the lead up to Tokyo 2020.