World Series leaders New Zealand are favorites to win the Hong Kong Sevens this weekend, but in a season that has proved unpredictable there is plenty of room for an upset.
Each of the previous five rounds of the International Rugby Board (IRB) World Sevens Series has been won by a different team, leaving the field wide open for Hong Kong — the most high-profile of the nine events on the calendar.
Rugby fans from all over the world are to cram the sold-out 40,000-seater Hong Kong Stadium for three days from today, wearing fancy dress, chanting and partying at the city’s biggest annual sporting event.
“With the atmosphere and the vibe here, Hong Kong is regarded as the biggest tournament in the world,” South Africa coach Paul Treu said.
Second in the World Series overall standings, South Africa are one of the main challengers for the Hong Kong crown, which has the highest prize purse in international sevens at US$150,000.
“We’ve won all the tournaments all over the world, but for the past 20 years this one has eluded us. Hopefully we’ll have some luck this time around,” Treu said.
South Africa defeated New Zealand 40-21 to take the Las Vegas Sevens last month, but Treu remained cautious going into Hong Kong.
“The biggest mistake that you can make is to come off a win and expect to win. We need to keep our feet on the ground,” he said.
New Zealand, who have won the Hong Kong Sevens 10 times, have been in four of the five finals this season and took the title in Port Elizabeth in December.
They are 23 points clear in the overall standings, but go into Hong Kong without playmaker Tomasi Cama, who has a groin injury.
“Injuries are why some teams have fluctuated in their performance [this series],” coach Gordon Tietjens said. “The key is to go into tournaments with a lot of depth on your bench.”
Defending champions Fiji beat New Zealand last year to take their record 13th title in Hong Kong and remain serious challengers, having won the Gold Coast round this series.
They are currently fourth in the overall standings, behind Samoa — who won in Dubai — in third place.
However, with the pools stronger than ever across the board, the big names cannot afford to take things for granted.
“Teams are getting strong right throughout and are consistently very tough,” Tietjens said.
For injury-plagued England, who won in Wellington and then failed to make it beyond the pool stages a week later in Las Vegas, the Hong Kong crowd could make all the difference.
“In Hong Kong we get so much support, it puts an extra spring in our step. It gives us an extra meter and probably an extra five points every game,” coach Ben Ryan said.
Sixteen teams are to battle for the Hong Kong title, while 12 lower-ranked teams fight separately for four places at the London Sevens in May and a chance to qualify for the IRB Sevens World Series next year.
Taiwan are in Pool E with Tonga, Tunisia and Uruguay. Taiwan are scheduled to play Uruguay this afternoon, and Tonga and Tunisia tomorrow.
Additional reporting by Staff writer