HONG KONG, CHINA – The 2015/2016 World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series will go down as a uniquely competitive one. There is a clear lead pack of 3 teams and they are relentlessly competing with each other to win each tournament and there is a chasing pack of teams that won’t catch the leading pack but are competing with each other to put pressure on the lead pack. The 7th leg in Hong Kong was no different. Hong Kong was filled with tense matches, upsets, dramatic finishes, and incredible play. As they have done before the USA surprised pundits and topped their pool. The knockout stage led to another Fiji win as it was in 2015 but there is just 6 points between first and third place.
USA Finishes 6th:
The @Eagles7s had a very good tournament. They have now qualified for the cup playoffs in 9 straight tournaments. Despite that they still struggle on day 2 and limped to a Plate final loss. The USA got a very good start with a opening match against Portugal. They started off hot scoring 2 tries then letting Portugal into the game with a try. In the second half the USA scored one more and more importantly showed their defensive prowess by shutting out Portugal to win 21-5.
Following that win, the USA was next asked to line-up against the always dangerous Argentina. The Eagles once again showed their improvement by taking a game that previously would have been a banana peel game and win the match, 26-14, with a display of complete rugby and teamwork on offense and defense. Next the USA was given the challenge of taking down the higher seeded (4th to USA’s 5th) Australia. The USA had already locked up a seat in the Cup playoffs but they were out to prove that they were the better team in Pool play. It was a very solid performance though some errors should have been warning signs for day 2, but the USA went on to win convincingly, 22-7.
Day 2 for the Eagles was filled with frustration. They took on South Africa in the Cup quarterfinal game and if you remember our preview, we said “at some point, the USA will have to knock off at least one of the top 4 teams to get a into the Cup or win it.” Well the opportunity came and the USA team from Day 1 failed to show-up. What we got was a team that looked nervous and cracking under the pressure of playing a top level opponent. The USA imploded to a final score of 28-0. There was no time for the USA to feel sorry for itself as it had a crucial plate semi-final against Wales. The USA seemed find the ability and skills that had eluded them a game earlier and stormed to a 27-0 victory. After that promising win, it was time for the Eagles to attempt to take another top tier scalp as the faced England in the Plate final. England are not top 5 as they were last season but they are still one of the better sides in world and can beat anybody on their day. As they did in their first match of the day, the USA didn’t come out sharp and didn’t look confident. Some mistakes were made once again and the USA fell short 19-0, ending their Hong Kong adventure.
If you follow us on Twitter, and you should, you will notice a discussion between myself and Grant Cole. I noted that the USA is in a competitive stage of development. As a team develops into a championship side they will go from losing most of their games to winning a quarter then half of their matches. The step up to winning more than half to three-quarters requires dealing with narrow losses then turning those into narrow victories and finally regular victories. As Grant noted the USA is mid-level in this progression right now. They are winning in pool matches and have become Cup playoff regulars. However they are losing big, sometimes only scoring once or not at all, to the top tier sides on Day 2. They need to make the loses closer then start winning them. This is where the program sits now and no one knows if it will be able to take the step between now and the Olympics.
The High Flying Fijians:
The Flying Fijians 7s side defeated all-comers as they became back to back Hong Kong 7s Champions. Under the leadership of Englishman Ben Ryan, the team has gone from strength to strength and outside of a few hiccups are consistently the team to beat. They once again meet their old 7s rival, the New Zealand All Black 7s side in the Cup final. After a physical first half that ended a draw, the Fijians turned it on in the second half. The first try of the second half came from their vaunted attack as they worked the New Zealand defense until it was stretched to the limit then made a break and touched it down. Their vast improvement in defense under Ryan showed as they shutdown New Zealand in the second half and scored a try through a turnover. Strangely though they went undefeated through the tournament, the teams that got closest to beating them were further down the standings than higher. Underlines how dangerous they can be to underestimate the opposition and not play their best but still secure the win.
South Africa remains third in the overall standings and they will need to do better to improve on that position. The Blitzbokke surprisingly came in second in pool play but in the Cup quarterfinal against USA, they turned it on. They then fell to New Zealand once again, because of poor composure in the late stages of the match. They bounced back to knock off Australia in the 3rd place match. Australia had a good tournament despite two losses. They only lost to their SANZAR higher ranked sides, Fiji and South Africa. They finished 4th in the tournament and remain 4th on in the overall standings.
England are trying to find themselves. With significant player turnover going into the year, the team has struggled for form, though they remain a dangerous side. They looked dominate against the USA as they won the Plate final. Argentina had very bad first day but bounced back to go undefeated in day two and win the Bowl. Russia refuse to let their struggles in pool and knockout play overshadow their effort. They managed to at least salvage their campaign and win the shield.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Japan back to the Sevens World Series. The Japanese won the 12 team qualifier for core status. Meaning the bottom placed team of this season’s series will be relegated to non-core status to make way for Japan. It was a tough gauntlet for Japan as they defeated my favorites to win promotion Zimbabwe in the semi-final. They then followed that up with a brilliant performance against the hosts, Hong Kong to punch their ticket back to the big show.
Final standings were
Second: New Zealand
Third: South Africa
The next leg will be in Singspore this upcoming weekend. Stay tuned to RWU for another preview and review of the tournament.
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.