- Written by Sam Agars, 1 April 2016
With the world’s best ready to shine at the home of the Sevens, Sam Agars reveals why this year’s tournament could be the hardest fought yet.
Rugby sevens returns to its spiritual home from April 8 to 10 and, as always, Hong Kongers are in for a treat. Renowned for its carnival atmosphere and non-stop action on and off the pitch, the Hong Kong Sevens promises to be particularly dynamic this year, as the sport approaches its Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro.
With a number of teams in top form in both the men’s and women’s competitions and plenty of exciting players set to tear up the pitch, rugby fans are looking forward to two-and-a-bit days of fast-paced, international play. Chatting with DB Pirates chairman Steve Kean and current Hong Kong women’s 15’s player, DB resident Aileen Ryan, it in fact becomes clear that this could be the best Hong Kong Sevens yet.
A look at the leaderboard
The 2015-2016 HSBC Sevens World Series (SWS) has been tightly fought to date, with perennial high achievers Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand all showing their strength at certain times during the series. Australia, Argentina and England have also impressed and will be looking to build towards the Olympics with only three SWS rounds remaining after Hong Kong.
Fan favourites Fiji are again the ones to beat, with supporters expected to be out in force to honour Fijian international Seru Rabeni, former DB Pirates player and coach, who passed away last month. The Islanders make a habit of finding another gear here, having won three of the past four Hong Kong Sevens. “Fiji will be exciting to watch as they have brilliant continuity skills and set a fast pace to the game,” Aileen says.
Providing more good news for fans, Steve believes that although the top three sides are still a class above their rivals, the competition is becoming more even across the board. It looks likely that every match in Hong Kong will be hard fought.
“Any one of them (New Zealand, South Africa or Fiji) could win the Cup this year, but let’s not rule out Australia, or indeed almost any of the top 10 on the series’ leaderboard,” Steve says. “We are seeing the gaps between what might have been seen as minor sevens nations and the ‘giants’ narrow significantly.”
Outside of the leading teams, there is a host of teams that play scintillating rugby and who can, on their day, not only blow away an opponent but also send the crowd into raptures. The likes of Kenya, Samoa and the USA come to mind, with Steve particularly partial when it comes to his birthplace, Kenya.
“When they are on fire they can beat any team,” Steve says. “They can make some amazing breaks, score long distance tries and over the past couple of years they have pulled off some of the biggest hand-offs (where the ball carrier fends off an opponent with an open palm to the chest).”
These speedsters, the try scorers, are the players that can do the unthinkable at the most unexpected times. Every good side needs them – players that can bust a game open with an act of brilliance. Steve highlights lightning-quick USA guns Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, New Zealand’s Ioane brothers, Akira and Rieko, and South Africa’s Seabelo Senatla as players to watch, and believes a couple of Fijian playmakers help make Fiji the special team it is.
“Jerry Tuwai and the giant Pio Tuwai help make Fiji such a compelling team to watch, with their flair and vision, and the intuitive way in which they often create space and tries from nowhere,” Steve says.
Women to watch
As has been the case since 1999, the final of the women’s competition is held in Hong Kong Stadium, in So Kon Po above Causeway Bay – this year on the Friday evening. As the Hong Kong Women’s Sevens (HKWS) is not part of the Women’s Sevens Series (WSS), different teams compete each year. The 2016 competition will feature France and Japan from the official WSS, while South Africa and Hong Kong will also be sides to watch.
The women’s competition is spread across two days, with day one on April 7 held at King’s Park Sports Ground in Ho Man Tin and the bulk of day two on April 8 played out at the Hong Kong Football Club, Happy Valley, before heading up the hill to join the main event at Hong Kong Stadium.
HK set to shine on home soil
There is a spot in the SWS on the line for the Hong Kong’s men’s team in the qualifying competition that runs in conjunction with the main tournament. Hong Kong entered last year’s qualifiers under a weight of expectation before bombing out in the quarter finals and will be hoping to produce a better show this time around.
“Hong Kong has a shot at winning,” Aileen says. “Their biggest opposition looks to be Spain and South Korea.”
Local talent Salom Yiu Kam-shing is one to watch. “When he takes the ball running flat out, and into space, he is extremely hard to defend against and shows that Hong Kong’s local players can compete with the top teams in the world,” Steve says.
The women will be looking to build on a solid fourth place finish last year and, according to Steve, their success depends on the likes of try machine Aggie Poon, the hard-working Kwong Sau Yan and captain Christy Cheng.
“Tash Olson-Thorne is another player to watch,” Steve says. “She is always solid in defence and is a huge asset to the team with her strong ball carrying.”
Whether or not the local sides can get the chocolates, when they take the field Hong Kong Stadium will go up a notch. “Nothing beats watching the Hong Kong teams play at the Sevens,” Aileen says. ”All eyes are on the pitch and the volume of the crowd always doubles.”