Hong Kong Sevens
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At the Rugby World Cup Sevens in September, the Australians were fourth, losing the bronze-medal match to Ireland. Photo: World Rugby

Hong Kong Sevens 2022: have traditional villains Australia earned a little love?

  • The team the Hong Kong Sevens loves to hate are for the first time arriving at the tournament as World Rugby Sevens Series champions
  • ‘The crowd just absolutely launch into you and give you a spray,’ coach John Manenti says. ‘It’s such a fun part of the tone of it’

Everyone loves a winner, but what happens when the winner is a team everyone loves to hate?

We are about to find out as Australia arrive in Hong Kong as the freshly minted World Rugby Sevens Series champions. That title – the Australians’ first – was sealed with a third-place finish at the season-ending event in Los Angeles, and the team so quickly moved on to the Rugby World Cup Sevens in South Africa that they barely had time to celebrate.
So maybe the crowd at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens will give the champions their due, and stand and applaud as they run out to face the home team in the last game of the first night of this year’s tournament. And, well, maybe they won’t.

Australian coach John Manenti is not convinced that they will. He knows Australia have priors in Hong Kong and have been roundly booed and even abused ever since they roughed up everyone’s favourites the Fijians way back in the 1980s. And Manenti has felt the heat first-hand.

Australia have traditionally been viewed as villains at the Hong Kong Sevens, in contrast with Fiji. Photo: World Rugby

“I was running water as an assistant coach in 2016 and I remember getting people yelling at abuse at me and then thinking, ‘You don’t even know who I am,’” Manenti said, smiling at the memory. “I thought, ‘Why am I copping a spray?’ Then it actually became quite a laugh, almost like you’re better off getting it.”

Australia were the surprise packets of the last Sevens Series, winning just one tournament, in London, but finally finding consistency – the lack of which had plagued their set-up for the previous decade.

One can put much of that down to the presence of Manenti, who crossed over to the men’s squad only last December after working with the Australian women, helping to lay the foundations of a programme that has since won the women’s Sevens Series, Commonwealth Games gold and the World Cup.

“One swallow doesn’t make a summer, so we’ve got to be consistent,” Manenti said. “We’ve got to be able to produce top-four finishes regularly so that they actually feel and believe that we can win medals and big tournaments and Olympic Games and World Cups.

“I suppose I’ve worked more on the cohesion and the defence side of things, and we worked really hard on getting that right attitude. Every time we go out there, there’s very little difference between our best performance and our worst performance.”

Even bearing in mind the caveat that the pandemic and World Cup preparations disrupted normal proceedings for all teams last season, the Australians’ success demanded respect – especially given that the first thing Manenti learned when he took charge of the programme was that it was being scaled back.

The official wording was that there had been a resetting” of the “strategic focus”; the translation was that the sevens programme was being left high and dry.

But Manenti just got on with the job at hand, searching the ranks of Super Rugby, Shute Shield and Queensland Premier Rugby for talent to add to the core of players he had inherited.

“We probably didn’t get the exposure that I would have liked for the boys and for the programme, just because we are trying to re-establish it and build it,” Manenti said. “You need dollars to do that well, and we need to have more players available to us. People were pleased that we did well, given that we had a fairly low starting point from that point of view.

“We started the year with six contracted players, and things like that. So it was a fairly good story.

“We’ve sort of been given the green light to contract a few more players, so that is a positive that has spun off the back of that success.”

Australia celebrate clinching the World Rugby Sevens Series in Los Angeles in August. Photo: AFP

There has been one major loss from Manenti’s squad during the off-season, with Corey Toole, the Impact Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, being snapped up by ACT Brumbies for the Super Rugby Pacific competition. However, Hong Kong is still likely to get to see some of the players who lit up last season.

The city may also witness a new identity, in how the Australians now go about the game. Might the green-and-gold get a little love in return? Manenti is not staking his life on it.

“It’s actually quite funny, isn’t it,” he said. “The crowd just absolutely launch into you and give you a spray. It’s such a fun part of the tone of it, especially up in the South Stand. So bring it on.

“We’ll have a similar squad to the one people have seen on the World Series and through the last few tournaments. The key to what we really wanted out of last year was consistency. If we can continue that then it’s a great launching pad to go to Hong Kong and beyond.”