Rugby sevens returns to its spiritual home this weekend as Hong Kong hosts its first leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series since the sport made its debut at last year’s Rio Olympics.
The question mark hanging over the event – credited by the International Olympic Committee as having convinced them to bring the truncated version of rugby union on board – is how it can hold on to its lofty position now that players and nations have a golden incentive to aim for once every four years.
Early indications are that the Cathay Pacific-HSBC Hong Kong Sevens need not worry. Tickets for the three-day extravaganza at the Hong Kong Stadium have long since sold out, as evidenced by the appearance of a particular brand of scratchy ticket tout around town. And the world series, of which Hong Kong hosts the seventh of 10 legs, seems to have been injected with a new lease of life since Rio.
Fiji and New Zealand have won the past six editions between them but, post-Rio, are going through a generational change, with new coaches (former Hong Kong boss Gareth Baber in for Ben Ryan at Fiji; interim boss Scott Waldrom in for Gordon Tietjens for the Kiwis) and squads freshened up after sevens regulars have moved on to more lucrative contracts in the cash-rich Super Rugby or European competitions.
So it’s been South Africa who’ve made all the running, with four tournament victories so far, and an appearance in the final of the remaining two, beaten both times by England who now sit in second place on the standings.
Coach Neil Powell has consigned that last loss to the English – 19-7 in Vancouver last month – to history and has his squad freshened up and fit.
Oddly, given the nation’s rich rugby heritage, the Blitzbok have never won in Hong Kong, but the form book – and a look in at their training sessions this week – suggests 2017 might be the year they break their duck. Extra incentive comes in the fact that the talismanic Cecil Afrika, their all-time points leader, will mark his 50th tournament this weekend.
“Different place, different challenges,” said Powell this week. “We have to just keep on focusing on the things that make us successful and hopefully this year will be our turn.”
Those two England tournament victories – in Cape Town (19-17) as well as Vancouver – have narrowed the gap at the top of the standing to 23 points (one more than teams get for winning), and the English might also have extra reason to celebrate this weekend as their hero Dan Norton is poised to set a new mark for tries scored in the world series.
The English – as is their wont – have been under wraps this week. Not so last year’s winners Fiji, who have ruled over Hong Kong an incredible 16 times.
They’ve been in town a week already, thanks in no small part to coach Baber’s links with the city and its Sports Institute. The Welshman is yet to coach them to a victory and six tournaments without one is considered almost unthinkable back on the islands.
Baber was this able to give an insight into the season so far – and he expects those top two teams to again be right in the mix come Sunday.
“When you look at England and South Africa they probably had the biggest bounce moving from Olympics to the new HSBC series,” said Baber.
“Both squads have had limited interruptions – it was a Great Britain squad [in Rio], but a large number of England players made that up. They’re stealing a march on everyone else. Their performance levels and the qualities they’ve shown are probably above everybody.
“Possibly New Zealand are going through something similar to ourselves with transition and new players coming in. They’ve got some exciting prospects coming in similar to ourselves. Hong Kong is the tournament everyone wants to win – it has that aura – and that can see players and teams lift themselves. We can expect that again this year.”