HONG KONG, CHINA – The city/state of Hong Kong has a weird place in 7s history. It is not the birthplace of rugby or even 7s like Scotland. Hong Kong remains the most glorious of all the 7s tournaments. It has been said that long before the 7s series became a circuit, this was the 7s tournament that captured the world’s attention. The big party in Hong Kong was what captured the world’s attention and made countries want to have a stop on the circuit, hoping they could create a party just like the one in Hongers. This year, Hong Kong will be the 6th leg in the series.
The USA had a great tournament in Las Vegas. The Eagles made the cup playoffs for the third consecutive tournament, their longest such streak since the final three tournaments of the 2012-13 Series. They reached the semi-final in Vegas before experiencing their first loss, when they fell to New Zealand All Black 7s team then to the South African Blitzbokke in the 3rd place game. Despite losing those matches, it was still the highest finish for the USA since a Cup Final loss at Adelaide Sevens in 2010. Meanwhile Fiji won their second tournament of the series so that they are now even on tournament wins with South Africa, who lead the overall field, followed by New Zealand. Fiji trails the pair on the overall standings as they sit in third. However before we look abroad, let’s look at the 3 main issues effecting the US side.
Team changes (+/-): Two. Mataiyasi Leuta will make his Men’s Eagles Sevens debut in place of Martin Iosefo. Unfortunately for Iosefo, his studies and being an Eagle have clashed and he has to focus on grades for the Asia leg of the tour. Nate Augspurger returns to the fold for the first time since December 2012 at this same tournament, the Hong Kong Sevens. With Augspurger in for Pat Blair, it appears that head coach Mike Friday is picking a playmaker over a forward but more than likely, Leuta will be asked to do grunt work.
Big Game Hunting: We said this last tournament; of the top 5 teams in the standings (South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, and England) the USA has only beaten Fiji (it resulted in a plate win). Even in the successful run in Vegas, they didn’t beat any of the top 5. If you believe in continuous improvement then the USA must not draw against South Africa in pool play – but beat them. The final and 3rd place losses were by healthy margins. 26-12 and 31-0, they show that the USA is not ready for that next step when it comes to winning a cup or finishing 3rd in a comp.
Hunter to Hunted: One key to progress is beating who you should beat. The USA is starting to move into the upper second tier, at least based on this year. This means that teams are going to be more motivated to knock the USA down. It is more than beating an equal, they can use a victory against the USA to lay claim to progress. How will the coaching staff and team deal with that change of roles?
What does this mean going in to the tournament?
Optimist’s view: The USA makes its fourth straight cup playoffs and makes the plate final. They have the talent to do it.
Cynic’s view: Super tough group and the team has not shown an ability to pull of must-win games. They make the bowl final, at best.
My view: The team is reaching that scary good phase. They are starting to look like the real deal and a side that can rattle the big teams. We can see them coming out of the group but a plate semi-final is the one finish we would bet on.
Men’s Eagles Sevens | Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens
v Kenya – Friday, March 27 – 7:38 a.m. ET
v Wales – Friday, March 27 – 11:34 p.m. ET
v England – Saturday, March 27 – 4:42 a.m. ET
You can Follow the U.S. in Hong Kong on Twitter with @USARugby and watch the Series on Universal Sports.
Hong Kong 7s: It is becoming a three-horse race between South Africa, New Zealand and Fiji for the series title. This could be the tournament that helps one of the three to gain some much need breathing room. There is still a chance for an unlikely 4th team to win and throw a wrench into proceedings but that is looking unlikely.
Here are our pool previews
Fiji are a top 3 side, so you have to figure them to take this. If Fiji under Ben Ryan have found a new level of consistency, then watch out because because it is a whole new level of dangerous. They win this pool with ease. Samoa is an enigma as you know never which side will show up. We feel the more formidable side will show up and take second. Canada seem to be finding their feet under new coach Liam Middleton. They still may not be ready to get second here but if Samoa plays sloppy, it is more than possible. If there is a French, Dutch or Flemish word for cannon fodder, that would describe Belgium in this group.
New Zealand will be encouraged by the return of DJ Forbes and Tim Mikkelson. So much so, that barring something unforeseen like an act of god, the Kiwis should easily win this group. Australia and Scotland will be in a tussle for the 2nd spot but under Welshman Geriant John; this isn’t the same old Australia, so they should easily win second. Scotland will take third as Portugal once again brings a knife to gunfight.
This is another group where the winner can be decided easily. It will be won by South Africa. Second place will be an almighty tussle between Argentina and France. Both of these sides can be as good as anyone when they are on their game. After flipping a coin, we decided to give it to France… Japan has improved in each tournament. They may not be winning a whole lot of games but they are getting more competitive. It won’t help them in this group as they will finish last, maybe in the knockout phase.
Simon Amor‘s England sit in 5th place in the overall standings. They are within touching distance of the 4th place spot held by Australia. They are the smart bet to win this group of death. The USA will be building on the momentum from Las Vegas and should be able to secure second. If the USA fails, Wales maybe the reason why. The Welsh are unpredictable because the team is young but they are ever so dangerous – and “freshened.” Kenya has been getting better but you get the feeling that in such a tough group, they will be found wanting.
2014-2015 Core Team Qualifier Tournament
These next three pools are important because these 12 teams will play to be regulars on the circuit for the 2014-15 season. Japan were promoted to core team status as they were the winners of the qualifier last year, in Hong Kong. Spain were relegated and lost their status as a core team for the 2014–15 season since they finished last in the 2013-14 season. The qualifier will have 12 teams or regional qualifiers (2 from each continental area union) that will battle for the one promotion place on offer. So here is a look at the twelve teams and how we think each pool will finish.
Hong Kong will be at home and that will be more than enough to carry them through. Uruguay is filled with college kids and youth but they are not to be taken lightly and will take second. Brazil has been the non-core team at two tournaments already, more than any other non-core nation. The reason is because of the Olympics, which is great and all but this team is not strong enough, so they get third. Mexico had a good Pan-Am games and are improving, but they won’t get far in this group.
Papua New Guinea
Russia are not to be taken lightly in 7s. Unlike some of their eastern Europe counterparts, silky handling and flair is not a problem for them, so they will top the group. Papua New Guinea have been training in Fiji to prepare for this tournament and can be considered a dark horse to win the qualifier, so claiming second won’t be a problem. Tunisia are an unknown commodity but as this is their second time here so they will have more experience to draw on than Korea which should see them finish third. Korea is like a one to two decades old version of Japan. They have the skill but they don’t have enough dynamic athletes that are explosive or powerful. As unit they also are not the biggest team on the tour. For this reason, they finish fourth.
Spain are looking to become a core nation again and are well ahead of most of the other non-core nations in this qualifier. They will cruise by in this group. Zimbabwe have the athletes to take second but their lack of structured play could see them finish lower. Tonga were one of our sides to watch in the Southern Hemispher in 2015. They have achieved so much on the 15s stage that you have to figure their 7s program will catch-up sooner or later. Guyana are like Zimbabwe, in terms of how dangerous they are on attack. Unfortunately, their defense is as bad as their attack is good so they will take fourth.
With all that factored in, here are our predictions for playoffs and the team that wins promotion to core status will be.
Second: South Africa
Third: New Zealand
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.