Fiji will be looking to turn up the heat on mighty New Zealand and South Africa this weekend as the Pacific islanders return to their favorite hunting ground at the Hong Kong Sevens seeking a hat-trick of titles.
With just three tournaments left in the International Rugby Board (IRB) World Sevens Series, a Fijian victory in Hong Kong — where they have won 14 times before — could blow the competition open.
“The entire nation of Fiji... will be all glued to the TVs,” coach Ben Ryan said at a press conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
“As I always told, you can lose every game all year, so long as you win Hong Kong, you’ll be OK. No pressure,” he joked.
Riding high after defeating South Africa to take the title in Tokyo last weekend, defending Hong Kong champions Fiji sit in third place in the table with 95 points. Named top seed in this weekend’s tournament — where the title is worth 22 points — the Pacific islanders are drawn in Pool A with Kenya, Sri Lanka and Wales, who they will meet first tonight.
South Africa’s Blitzbokke are top with 116 points after leapfrogging New Zealand, who finished fourth in Tokyo, leaving the All Blacks in second place with 114.
New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens made it clear that his side would learn the lessons of Tokyo.
Asked if the Series had become a two-horse race between the All Blacks and South Africa, Tietjens said: “Looks like that way on the points table, but there’s Fiji coming up from behind.”
“No tournament is over ’til it’s over,” he said.
With 120,000 spectators expected to attend the three-day tournament, the most prestigious of the Series, Tietjens admitted he was feeling “certainly an extra bit of pressure.”
South Africa coach Neil Powell denied that Hong Kong — where his team is still seeking a maiden victory — was a bad-luck “bogey tournament” for the Blitzbokke, citing their strong showing during the New Zealand leg of the series last month.
“I think we showed in Wellington, that, really you could also say was a bogey tournament, [but] we reached the final... I think we will do well in Hong Kong this year,” he said.
The three teams have locked up the Series so far, taking two tournaments each — Australia and Wellington for New Zealand, Port Elizabeth and Las Vegas for South Africa, and Dubai and Tokyo for Fiji. After Hong Kong, there are just two tournaments left: Glasgow then London, both in May.
Twenty-eight teams are participating in Hong Kong — 16 in the tournament, and a further 12 in a simultaneous qualifier competition, the winner of which will be promoted to the Series next year.
Hong Kong rugby chairman Trevor Gregory said the qualifier was “emblematic of the growth of the sevens game internationally” and “a strong preview of what the wider sporting world can expect as we ramp up for the debut of rugby sevens at the Olympics in Rio in 2016.”
With next year’s Series set to qualify four teams directly into the Olympics, IRB general manager Avan Lee added: “The incentive has never been greater.”
Both Hong Kong and Japan, he said, have a real chance at winning the qualifier.
When asked what it would take for the home side to prevail, Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber was succinct.
“We have to beat everybody. It’s as simple as that,” he said.