HONG KONG, CHINA – Welcome to the Granddaddy of them all for the World Rugby HSBC 7s. By now, we all know that the great game of 7s was born in my great-grandfather’s homeland of Scotland, however Hong Kong is the birthplace of the 7s series. Long before the 7s series became a circuit, this was the 7s tournament that captured the world’s attention, from Suva, Fiji to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Every major city in a big time rugby country wanted to host a leg. That is why there is always so much pressure on the cities that host a leg, to throw a hell of a party. They know that if they are not a great stop, they will get replaced. I mean Scotland, the home of 7s, lost a leg because of this, while Vancouver become a tour stop at the same time. The only thing more ruthless than the battle to host a stop on the circuit are the games on the circuit itself.
The USA’s showing in the last tournament in Vancouver was impressive. On the back of winning it all in Las Vegas, the side dealt with key players unavailable for selection due to injury and managed to finish fourth. The Eagles were missing 4 regulars including 3 tour veterans that normally are crucial to success in big time playmaker Maka Unufe, Captain Madison Hughes and the underrated Stephen Tomasin as well as developing talent Joe Schroeder. USA 7s Head Coach Mike Friday sounded excited at the fact that two of the four will be making a comeback this weekend. Friday said “It’s great to have Steve and Maka back to bring further strength, experience and attacking firepower into the team. Both players are hugely versatile, balancing the extended traveling squad.” The hope is that the added bodies will mean that the USA will have fresher legs later in the tournament.
Let’s look at the 3 key issues going into this tournament:
Team changes (+/-): There are 3.5 changes to the USA squad from Vancouver. That seems like a high number but it is not. Here is the breakdown, Nick Boyer is out of the squad entirely. He has been replaced by the returning Maka Unufe. The return of Tomasin means Maroon Al- Jiboori has been dropped to 13th man and will not part of the run-on squad for the weekend. That makes up 1.5 of the total number of changes. The remaining two are the additions of tour veteran Pat Blair and newbie Cody Melphy. With two guys coming back from injury apparently USA Rugby is not taking any chances and have made Melphy and Blair be the traveling reserves, in case they are needed for a matchday or the next leg in Singapore.
Here comes the Calvary: The return of Unufe and Tomasin instantly make the USA more dangerous. They add depth and are not just bodies but guys that make a difference when they come on. This means the team will be able to rotate players and stay much more competitive.
Momentum: The USA has looked really good in the last few legs when you consider the injuries. The question is can they keep it going? The North America swing was good to them but now they are in the midst of the Asia Swing and that is gonna be tougher. They are much further from home and with less in person fan support.
Optimist’s View: With some of the momentum from Vancouver and returned stars the USA finish second.
Cynic’s View: The Eagles show their ability and finish sixth after losing the quarterfinal and the fifth place final.
My View: The optimist called it right in Vancouver as the USA finished fourth. I am not gonna support him though, I predict the USA will take the Bronze and finish third.
HONG KONG 7s:
It is two horse race for the title. It is up to Fiji to chase down South Africa . The former is in scintillating form while the latter seems to be cooling off a bit. However, on a tournament to tournament basis, teams like New Zealand, Australia, England, Argentina, Kenya and the USA are putting pressure on top 2 to win it all. The competitiveness of the series continues to increase, every year in every tournament.
Here are our pool previews:
The class of this pool are Fiji and New Zealand and barring an out of this world performance from Samoa, the top two sides will the two powerhouses. Samoa will likely come in third and without a doubt, Russia are the team projected to finish last.
I want to first take a moment to wish Australia team captain, James Stannard a happy and healthy recover. He was coward punched a week ago and had to go the hospital. As for the pool, I am only predicting Australia to finish this group based on their overall standing. Kenya have been in red hot form the last couple of legs and it would not be a surprise to see them top this pool and have the Aussies finish second. Canada Rugby is a mess, to put it lightly. The knock-on effects of administration issues has seeped on to the field for the 15s team and now the 7s team. This team is talented but they are just not clicking enough to be more competitive. As a result, I have them third with a possibility of losing to Spain. I have Spain finishing last in this pool but I wouldn’t count out the Canadians laying an egg, either.
South Africa will win this group though they will face a stern challenge from England. Neither side should take it easy as always dangerous Scotland are going to give both the top two sides a quality workout. South Korea are so far out of their league, if they keep the loses to under 25 points, it’s a small victory.
Stop me if you have heard this before. The top two teams in this pool are better the other two teams in this pool. The USA Eagle homer in me, has me picking the USA to top this group followed by Argentina who have looked extra dangerous this year. Wales and France will end up third and fourth in the pool, though I can’t be sure which order so with a coin flip, I will go Wales in third.
2018 – 2019 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 2018-19 season. There will also be qualifiers for the Womens Sevens Series. You can follow along on the World Rugby Live blog or our friend YSC Rugby. Spain won an instant classic of a match against Germany in a tight 12-7 affair last season to be promoted to core team status. Japan were relegated and lost their status as a core team for the 2017–18 season since they finished last in the 2016-17 season. The qualifier will have 12 teams, winners of regional qualifiers, 2 from each continental area union, except Rugby Americas North, who got one and Europe got a spot through the winner of the qualification repechage. That is right! You gotta fight for the right to fight in the qualifier and 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.
Japan should top this group because they were a core team very recently. Uganda have been very competitive in Africa and have a good chance of finishing second. Chile have improved in 15s but I am not sure they have progressed well enough to be a threat in 7s. Georgia have been working hard to develop a backline to compliment their ferocious forwards for years and it is beginning to show in the underage tournaments, I am not sure if it will show here on this weekend.
Papua New Guinea
This is the pool of death as all 4 teams have looked good in their brief tour appearances. Hong Kong will be at home and you would think that, that will be more than enough to carry them through. However, Germany were achingly close to winning it last year so you have to figure they are second. In the qualifier the best two 3rd place teams make the playoff so it will be a fight between Papua New Guinea who looked good in the Australia 7s and Zimbabwe who have been the third best 7s rugby nation in Africa for years. I am gonna be an African homer and pick Zimbabwe to finish third.
I really feel like Uruguay and Ireland are the top teams in this group. So it boils down to Jamaica taking on the Cook Islands for the final third place spot to the quarterfinals. I don’t think the best or second best 3rd place team will come from Pool E. It comes down to thinking that Jamaica will have a bit more to prove and might have better chemistry than a Cook Islands side made up of players that are more scared around the pacific.
If you are not sure where to watch all the action, just check the World Rugby website. And now, here are our predictions for playoffs and the team that wins promotion to core status will be.
Challenge Trophy: Scotland
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.