HONG KONG, CHINA – The World Rugby HSBC 7s rolls into the island city of Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a very unique place in 7s lore. Though Scotland is the birthplace of rugby, Hong Kong is remains the most glorious of all the 7s tournaments. Long before the 7s series became a circuit, this was the 7s tournament that captured the world’s attention. The way the tournament engrossed all of Hong Kong, it awed so many on-lookers and made cities want to have a circuit so they could have a stop on it, hoping they could create a party just like the one in Hongers. This year, Hong Kong will be the 7th leg in the extended 10 city tour series.
The USA’s showing in the last tournament in Vancouver was very positive. The side dealt with key players unable for selection due to injury and managed to finish sixth. The Eagles were missing 4 regulars including 3 tour veterans that normally are crucial to success in big time playmaker Maka Unufe, Sevens Dream Team member Zach Test and the fastest man in rugby, Carlin Isles as well as developing talent Will Holder. The USA has not been able to get over the hump and regularly defeat top sides but they are consistently winning games against everyone else and they are doing it by executing the basics. USA 7s Head Coach Mike Friday said “We need to improve accuracy and consistency together with maintaining the standards we expect from all that are a part of this environment.” The hope is that Friday’s Charges can keep it going.
Let’s look at the 3 key issues going into this tournament:
Team changes (+/-): There are 4 changes to the USA squad from Vancouver. Pat Blair, Seth Halliman, Ben Leatigaga, and Thretton Palamo failed to make the cut. In come two stalwarts in Test and Unufe. After becoming an Eagles 7s player while still in college, Peter Tiberio has been on the outside looking in for the past couple of years. He has been working hard on his fitness, adding weight and after captaining the Falcons (Eagles 7s B-side) team in Las Vegas, he has made the squad for the Asian swing. Isles was expected to be back with the team this week and traveled to Hong Kong. However in the final pre-tournament warm-up he suffered a knock that made him unavailable for the tournament. In steps Nate Ebner, who was in Hong Kong playing the GFI 10s as he works his way back to Rugby and a shot at Rio.
Chemistry: Coach Friday has been a big proponent of guys competing for spots. But after having to make 4 injury forced changes and receiving a solid performance maybe two would have been best this round. Anytime you make so many changes timing, handling and trust and all the little things that matter become an issue. And it is these little things that often make the difference between winning and losing.
Getting over the hump: 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. You have to run with the big dogs at some point or else the view never changes. So in the Cup round the USA will have to put together a perfect performance and make a cup final or accept 4th place as the best they can do.
Optimist’s View: With some of the momentum from Vancouver and returned stars the USA finish fourth.
Cynic’s View: The Eagles show their ability and talent but still can’t get over the hump and lose in the Plate final.
My View: It is easy to want to believe the optimist but I just don’t see it. They will take the Plate but that is about as positive as I can be.
HONG KONG 7s:
It is shaping up to be an interesting round. Fiji, have taken the lead but are still being pursued by South Africa and New Zealand. There are still sides like Australia, England and the USA that are not out of it and are putting pressure on top 3 in every tournament. This continues to be the most open series ever.
Here are our pool previews:
This is easily the toughest group to predict. New Zealand is pure class and should have no problem topping this group. The challenge begins in picking who finishes second and continues to the Cup round. Kenya has been improving so you want to believe they will take second while Samoa are notoriously slow starters so them finishing third is believable and France started the series well but faded after losing Virimi Vakatawa to the 15s team. However he is back so they are unpredictable but their recent struggles mean they are projected to finish last.
I can confidently predict that South Africa will win this group. It may take them pulling away late in matches but they will win. England have been in a horrendous run of form and if it was not for the large English ex-pat presence to help lift the team, they would be predicted to finish third. We predict that Scotland, with their own ex-pats in attendance, will also play well but be nipped to second. Despite Russia‘s improvements they are in a tough group and finishes fourth is the most likely result.
Australia will win this group though they will face a stern challenge from the USA. An always dangerous Argentina are going to give both the top two sides a quality workout. Despite how much we truly like Portugal they will unfortunately be bringing up the rear.
Fiji are head and shoulders above all the other pool members so they will take first. Coming in second will be Canada who will be eager to top Wales and return the favor after losing out on the Cup playoffs in Vancouver to Wales courtesy of points difference and a try at the death in their head to head. Wales will finish third and South Korea will be merely canon fodder in this group.
2015 – 2016 Core Team Qualifier Tournament
These next three pools are important because these 12 teams will play to be one of the regulars on the circuit for the 2016-16 season. Russia, as I predicted, were promoted to core team status as they were the winners of the qualifier last year, in Hong Kong. Japan were relegated and lost their status as a core team for the 2015–16 season since they finished last in the 2014-15 season. The qualifier will have 12 teams, winners of 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 you would think that, that will be more than enough to carry them through. However, Zimbabwe fell just short of winning the whole thing last year and they seem to be hungrier this year. Germany will have some of it 15s players back but it just seems hard to fathom them doing better than third. Cayman Islands, well thanks for showing up and here is your parting gift, fourth place in this pool.
Papua New Guinea
You want to say that Spain should top this group because they were a core team very recently. However, Papua New Guinea had a good run last year and if they don’t win this win this pool they will be very formidable in the knock-out stages. Chile is having its troubles on the field and off the field in terms of administration and stuff so finishing third here would be par for the course. Mexico is getting better each year but they are still far from relevant in a tournament like this so last place seems apropos.
Japan 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. After seeing the Brazil backline play in the ARC, it is easy to believe than can finish second in this group. Tonga were one of our sides to watch in the Southern Hemisphere in 2015 but still can’t seem to get their act together. They have achieved so much on the 15s stage that you have to figure their 7s program will catch-up sooner or later but that doesn’t look like the case. Morocco will be able to play a physical game but their skills in space will let them down and they will finish fourth in this group.
A live stream will be provided to viewers who want to watch the action on World Rugby’s website. And now, here are our predictions for playoffs and the team that wins promotion to core status will be.
Second: New Zealand
Third: South Africa
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.