The kids are all right: ‘stars of tomorrow’ set to follow in footsteps of greats who made names at Hong Kong Sevens
Australian squad has five players aged 20 or under as teams plump for more youthful squads this year with one eye on the Commonwealth Games
Fate is handing a new generation of Sevens players the chance to walk in the footsteps of a giant at the Hong Kong Stadium this weekend.
It was 24 years ago now that a teenage rampage here set the rugby world afire. There had been rumours about the talent the 18-year-old Jonah Lomu was lugging into town back then but no one, really, expected to see the sheer brilliance the young Kiwi brought with him.
Lomu tore up the tournament as New Zealand lifted the Cup that year – and a storied 10-year Rugby Hall of Fame career followed.
Comparisons with Lomu are obviously unfair – as is the weight of expectation – but South Africa coach Marius Schoeman is among those in town this week who made his own HSBC Sevens World Series debut in Hong Kong – at 22 – and he knows what impact the opportunity can have on a young player’s career.
“It really can set you up for life,” said Schoeman, who ran out in 2001 alongside future 15s World Cup winner Andre Pretorius.
“What you have to do is stay calm because the occasion is so huge. But you learn so much from playing against and being around the best players around. You have to get these young players out there and playing as that is the only way you learn. The only obstacle is the Hong Kong lights and the 40,000 spectators.”
The fact that many nations have divided their attentions between Hong Kong and the Commonwealth Games in Australia next week has meant there are youth policies being followed everywhere.
A post shared by Jeral Skelton | 18 | (@jeralskelton) on Apr 5, 2018 at 6:35pm PDT
South Africa have 21-year-old Heino Bezuidenhout making his World Series debut after a junior career that saw him captain his nation’s under-18 sevens team that won gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa in 2015.
England have 19-year-old rising star Callum Sirker and the Aussies have – incredibly – five players aged 20 or under.
“We have two boys celebrating their birthdays on Sunday – Jeral Skelton turns 19 and Harrison Goddard turns 20,” revealed Aussie coach Jarred Hodges. “Triston Reilly is only 18 and then Dylan Pietsch turns 20 this year, Matthew McTaggart does too. So this is a really big stage for them all. This tournament is about the stars of tomorrow.
“It’s a cut-throat series and it provides an opportunity for these young men to put their best foot forward sand to work their way into the side for the rest of the year. There are contracts up for grabs, the World Cup and then the Olympic qualifiers next year as we head towards Tokyo in 2020.”
There is a bit of a buzz around the local camp, too, as the 18-year-old Max Denmark prepares to have his first run out for Hong Kong in the World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier.
After being schooled in the United Kingdom, Denmark has decided to throw his lot in with the Hong Kong set-up – and coach Paul John said this weekend was just reward for the youngsters efforts, and the perfect platform on which to build his future.
“There is a challenge here to keep the talent in Hong Kong and seeing Max Denmark stay here and become involved in the Hong Kong Sevens will hopefully help convince a few more of them to do the same,” said John. “It’s great to have him with us and he’s done really well over the past few months. He’s a strong young kid and he’s extremely talented. I’m sure he’ll get out there at the weekend and set an example when he gets involved and the future for him looks very bright.”