This year’s Hong Kong Sevens looms as the worst in decades but no one cares about the rugby, right?
South Africa’s call to prioritise the Commonwealth Games brings into question World Rugby’s scheduling and what standard local fans can expect
The fans, their costumes and the party atmosphere that comes with them will be in full force at next month’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, but the world’s best players will not.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out scheduling the Commonwealth Games sevens competition the week after Hong Kong would cause issues and World Series leaders South Africa have confirmed the worst.
The Blitzbokke will land in Hong Kong armed with only a second-string side headed by academy coach Marius Schoeman and featuring a host of uncapped players, with their best side bound for the Commonwealth Games.
Surely, World Rugby could have done more to preserve the biggest event on the World Series.
By shuffling the schedule – admittedly a jam-packed one with the World Cup in July – the governing body would have avoided any possibility of teams prioritising one event above the other.
In turn, there would have been no chance of a hit to the integrity of the tournament that laid the foundation for the World Series and sevens’ passage to the Olympics.
As soon as the schedule was announced, there was uncertainty about how teams would consider their approach.
Would teams use Hong Kong as a primer, or would they set their sights solely on gold on Australia’s Gold Coast?
South Africa’s decision will have Commonwealth Games organisers licking their lips after what has no doubt been months of uncertainty about just where their competition sits now that sevens is an Olympic sport.
But at the other end of the spectrum, those in Hong Kong face a nervous wait until other series powerhouses reveal their plans.
“No one cares about the rugby” is a common catchphrase around Hong Kong when chatting about the sevens and that sentiment is about to face the ultimate test.
The top four teams in the World Series standings – Fiji, Australia and New Zealand, along with the Blitzbokke – are all heading to the Commonwealth Games. Top-10 sides England, Samoa and Kenya are also there, as well as Scotland and Wales.
That’s more than half the teams that usually lay it all on the line in Hong Kong and the result could be the worse standard the city has seen in the professional era.
One saving grace for organisers is that the USA are flying and will be going full throttle, while Argentina are also in form and sit fifth on the series standings.
Then there’s Fiji, who it is hard to imagine won’t be going all out to continue their dominance here, even if they did get a taste for gold in Rio and have never finished above second in the Commonwealth Games.
Coach Gareth Baber – former boss of Hong Kong – said in January “the Fijian public will expect us to win both”, but he also admitted they would look at bringing separate squads to Hong Kong, the Gold Coast and the Singapore Sevens the week after.
But we can rest easy in the knowledge the astronomical depth of sevens in Fiji will guarantee that whoever they bring, they will put on a spectacle worthy of the game’s showpiece event.
The same can’t be said for any of the other top teams should they opt to go down the route of South Africa.
It is almost certain that not a single Commonwealth team will field a full-strength side in Hong Kong and in all likelihood many will be miles from their best. The question is – how many fans actually care?
I’d say more than many think.
Hongkongers are used to having the best – whether it was David Campese, Waisale Serevi and Jonah Lomu in years gone by or Seabelo Senatla and Dan Norton in recent times.
Take that calibre of player away and there is no doubt people will notice, even if the Saturday South Stand revellers couldn’t care less if it was Serevi or someone from the street running around in Hong Kong Stadium.
Truth is, the Sevens will be fine this time around and there will be enough streakers, beer and even more wholesome entertainment to keep everyone happy – something that World Rugby would have well known when making the schedule.
But relying on Hong Kong to be a home run just because it always has been is a dangerous game to play – there is an educated rugby crowd in the city and one that won’t take lightly to being toyed with.