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Hong Kong Sevens

Smart money on Fiji to retain Sevens title but there will be ‘no easy games’ in Hong Kong

Youthful squads promise to test the holders but tournament is ‘as big as it gets’ says coach Gareth Baber

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 1:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 1:52pm

There’s a fanfare that always surrounds Fiji come the time of the ­Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.

This year there’s been extra hype, too, with the islanders gunning for a record fourth straight title and the hopes back home that they can complete a unique double across two weekends in winning in Hong Kong and then grabbing their first-ever Commonwealth Games gold on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Coach Gareth Baber and the selectors have opted for an extended squad for the massive task ahead and when you factor in the fact that Fiji has just weathered another cyclone – which claimed lives and destroyed homes – you have to wonder how all the pressure is handled.

Calmly, is the answer, and with a sense of purpose that comes with the territory when you are working with and playing for the most storied ­Sevens nation on earth

“Over the past 30 years the world has seen what this tournament means to Fiji,” said Baber. “For Fijians this is as big as it gets. We have been able to focus on what’s ahead.”

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Last year, Baber led Fiji to a crushing 22-0 victory over South Africa that back then had seemed a long time coming, giving their past exploits and the fact they had been crowned Olympic champions in Rio into the bargain.

The coach’s relief was palpable and as he returns to the Hong Kong Stadium – where he has so much of his own history after three years leading the local side – the sense this year is that Fiji is now fully Baber’s team. Or as much as the free spirited Fijis will ever let it be.

“I’ve been learning a lot about them as individuals and we grow together,” said Baber. “Our systems are in place now and we are getting more consistent which is the key to sevens rugby. Smart coaches know how to lay the foundations for players to develop. You have to.”

The fact that some nations have chosen development squads this week – among them HSBC Rugby World Sevens Series leaders South ­Africa, along with 11-time Hong Kong Sevens winners New Zealand and five time winners Australia – suggests that on paper at least that the islanders could have things all their own way.

Throw in the returning Semi Kunatani – one of the greatest players the game has seen – as well as a squad boasting the ever-ready Jerry Tuwai as captain, and the smart money certainly says “Fiji”. But as Baber loves to say, there are no easy games at the top of the game.

Fiji have drawn New Zealand, Samoa and Russia in pool A as they looked to peg back the eight points that separate them from the South Africans in this season’s World Series.

There is a quiet air of confidence about the Blitzboks themselves, with former national sevens stalwart Marius Schoeman stepping in for regular coach Neil Powell and bringing with him a squad mostly drawn from the national development squad.

They will help chart the future for South African sevens, said Schoeman, who has at his disposal Dewald Human as captain – after he was part of their World Series title win last season – and impressive youngsters Heino Bezuidenhout and Mosolwa Mafuma looking to make their mark.

“There is a lot at stake for everything this week,” said Schoeman. “The boys know how much is on the horizon with the World Cup and then the campaign towards 2020 and the Olympics in Tokyo. For many of them it all starts here in Hong Kong.”

The dazzling lights and the massive 40,000 crowd might be a distraction – initially – but Schoeman has faith his youngster will rise to the occasion.

They had better be ready in a pool C that features a young England, a beefed-up Scotland and the tournament’s wild card in South Korea.

There will be plenty of youth on show in pool B, also, as Australia – searching to break a 30-year title drought here – have also brought their next generation to town.

The 42-cap veteran Con Foley must be wondering what to talk to the team about, off the field, given the fact he is at the ripe old age of 26 years old and most of his squad are aged 20 or even younger.

Kenya are in the pool B mix – right in it given the fact they were beaten by Fiji in the final last time out in Vancouver.

Coach Innocent Simiyu has ­declared Hong Kong is their mission, even though they will continue Down Under and in Samuel Oliech they have a bone fide superstar.

We believe how we perform in Hong Kong will more or less set the pace with regard to the Commonwealth Games,” was Simiyu’s declaration before leaving for the trip to the other side of the globe.

Spain and Canada are two ever-improving outfits and round out pool B. Which brings us to pool D and the USA. Given the fact they won their home event in Las Vegas last month – for the first time – and they have more strength back with Stephen Tomasin return. And given the fact that the flying Perry Baker just keeps on improving and they’re at full strength.

But they’ve drawn Argentina – twice finalists this season – and a French team buoyed by the return of nifty playmaker Terry Bouhraoua, as well as the Welsh.

“The competition is as intense as ever,” said USA coach Mike Friday. “We’re under no illusion how tough it is to win any game of sevens now it’s on this world circuit.”