Will the Sevens throw up a surprise, or will Fiji win and Hong Kong fall short like every year?
The build-up has been anything but ordinary with many sides bringing understrength line-ups and here’s to hoping the main event follows suit
Hong Kong is abuzz with sevens mania once again but the build-up to this year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens has been anything but ordinary – from a rugby point of view, anyway – with other major events taking some of the lustre from the biggest sevens event of the year.
On the HSBC World Sevens Series, the Commonwealth Games has proven to hold greater weight than Hong Kong for a number of teams and the differing approaches of sides have been the cause for much debate.
Fiji have opted to name one squad they think is capable of winning both but they are basically alone in that approach, with series heavyweights South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia all putting their best players on ice until next weekend’s Games.
That teams have decided Games gold is more important than Hong Kong is not the issue, but it is the fact they have chosen to effectively relinquish any chance of winning here that has raised questions.
Does it degrade the event that made sevens what it is today? Should the schedule have changed to guarantee the best players were in Hong Kong?
A colleague of mine had an interesting and refreshingly positive take on the whole thing – that the young players will liven up a tournament that has lost some of its uniqueness due to the sameness of many of today’s sevens specialists.
Furthermore, he said it’s always been the youngsters that have captured the hearts of Hong Kong fans and that the fans will make sure there’s a party regardless of the players.
And for good measure, we can throw in the fact Fiji are still bringing the heavy artillery and all is good.
From a Hong Kong perspective, there seems to be a little less expectation around a side that has promised so much but ultimately failed each year since the introduction of the World Series qualifier in 2012.
Perhaps the Hong Kong public have reached the point where it’s easier not to have expectation for the fear of being let down?
Of course, with the Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Asian Games on the horizon, making the World Series is not the only focus for Hong Kong in what is a huge year for local rugby, with the 15s side beginning World Cup qualification in May.
But it’s not all doom and gloom and nor should it be around Sevens time – if the build-up has been different, maybe the tournament itself can follow suit.
Perhaps it won’t be Fiji winning for the fourth consecutive year, and one of the full-strength USA and Argentina can step in and upset the status quo.
As much as Fiji love Hong Kong, their victory at the Rio Olympics also proves they love gold very much and maybe, just maybe, they will be a little preoccupied about the task that awaits in Australia next weekend.
More importantly, perhaps when they least expect it Hong Kong fans will experience the ultimate of their team finally qualifying for the World Series.
It’s a concept quite hard to get your head around – a Hong Kong team playing at the very top level on a regular basis.
Working in Hong Kong’s favour is the fact that, despite their being five Sevens debutants in the 13 for this weekend, there is a sense of calm in the group that suggests they aren’t feeling the weight of expectation that local side’s have had to endure in the past.
Coach Paul John has reinvented the side after the departure of a number of big names – Alex and Tom McQueen and Ryan Meacham, to name a few – and seems more than comfortable with how the rebuild is progressing.
The inclusion of the likes of big-bodied trio Kane Boucaut, Max Denmark and Jack Neville gives the side a hard edge and John’s wealth of experience – he coached Wales to victory in the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai – has ensured the new-look outfit has come together nicely in less than 12 months.
It might be a stretch to say they are ready for the World Series, but they’re certainly in the hunt – even with Japan, Germany and Ireland leading a pack of hungry competitors.
And hey, stranger things have happened. Who would have ever thought the world’s best sevens players would be willingly bypassing Hong Kong?