Hong Kong 7s Preview
March 21, 2002

The IRB World Sevens Series stops in Hong Kong this weekend for the most open tournament at So Kon Po for many a year with different winners at each of the past three IRB tournaments.

While New Zealand and Fiji have shared the past eight Hong Kong titles (including the 1997 World Cup) and 12 of the past 13, signs grow stronger that this decade of dominance may near its end. These two teams will always be top favourites, but the chasing pack has caught up, thanks to the advent of the world circuit.

Two years ago, Fiji beat Samoa 50-0 in the quarters, then demolished England 52-7 in the semis while the Kiwis disposed of Australia 26-0.

In last years semi-finals, the Fijians edged past Samoa 12-10 and Gordon Tietjens' champions needed an injury-time try from Karl Tenana to beat Australia 14-12.

Since then, South Africa and England have joined Samoa and Australia as potential winners. And with the Commonwealth Games in Manchester only four months away, everyone seems to be setting aside more resources to improve their national sevens team.

The biggest threat to double defending champions New Zealand now appears in the form of Chester Williams' South Africa, who stunned the Kiwis 26-10 in front of their home crowd in Wellington last month before winning the final over a young but well-groomed Samoa.

The Springbok Sevens, though losing to Gordon Tietjens' men last week in Beijing, underlined just how far such teams have progressed since the IRB circuit kicked off in 1999.

Williams took over the reins of the South Africans last October and had an immediate impact. Of the nine tournaments in the 2000-01 series, South Africa made it past the quarter-finals on just three occasions. This season, they have reached the semi-finals every time, and have played in three finals.

Skippered by savvy sevens campaigner Paul Treu and with pace to burn throughout the team, South Africa have beaten every other team on the circuit and twice kept the Fijians scoreless.

Though Williams has lost his game-breaker Fabian Juries because of an arm injury, Brent Russell and Jean De Villiers have shone under pressure to make South Africa a consistent force.

New Zealand lead the IRB standings by 18 points over South Africa, who are themselves 16 points ahead of Fiji and Samoa. But with extra points up for grabs in Hong Kong, the series is far from over. The winners this weekend receive 30 IRB points while the losing quarter-finalists have to settle for 8 points, a differential that can change the whole shape of the table.

The Kiwis, clear winners in difficult conditions last week, are enjoying a bit more pace out wide than they had earlier in the series. "In Wellington, we were comprehensively beaten by South Africa," Tietjens said. "So I decided I had to go out and find some pace for the team."

He found that speed in Fiji-born wing Joe Rokocoko, who was seconded from the New Zealand under-19 World Cup squad, and North Harbour centre Anthony Tuitavaki.

Tietjens' also has experience aplenty in his squad with evergreen skipper Eric Rush still producing the goods at age 37 and the likes Jared Going, Craig de Goldi, Amasio Raoma and Damian Karauna ready to take on all-comers.

New Zealand are targeting another Hong Kong hat trick, something they last achieved in the Lomu years of 1994-96.

Old foes Fiji, meanwhile, are in the midst of re-building a squad under the Ratu Kitione Vesikula, who coached them to three historic wins here in 1990-92. He retained just one player from the Alifereti Cawanibuka squad that went to Brisbane and Wellington one Waisale Serevi.

Serevi, the only man to have won the famous Leslie Williams Award three times, made his first Hong Kong appearance back in 1989, and has been thoroughly entertaining ever since, except for last year when he missed the trip.

Skippering the Fiji side is Sami Rabaka, the halfback of the 1992 winning team, and expected to fly in from France is Vili Satala. But outside of this trio, youth prevails.

The forward combination of Mesake Davu and Jo Uluivuda has come together quickly, but Fiji probably lack that extra yard of pace out wide since losing Rupeni Caucau to Super 12 and Norman Ligairi to the London-based Harlequins.

Australia will also blood some new players as coach Julian Gardner fields one of the youngest-ever Australian Sevens teams, whose average age is just 21.

The exciting talents include 19-year-old Chris Siale, who toured with the Australian Schoolboys last year, and Luke Foster (20) who played Australian Under 19s.

"It is always a challenge to bring young players into an Australian team and expose them to the international Sevens," Gardner said. "But they bring with them unlimited enthusiasm and a great deal of raw talent."

That zeal was evident in Beijing, where Australia battled through to the semis, picking up the scalp of Samoa on the way. "The Australian 7s team has always been a breeding ground for Wallabies, with players like George Gregan, Ben Tune, Stephen Larkham and Matt Burke all cutting their teeth in sevens," Gardner said.

Outside of these four teams, who made up the semi-finals last week, England, Samoa and possibly Argentina have the capabilities to produce a shock.

England coach Joe Lydon has set his target at achieving top four status ahead of the Commonwealth Games in August.

England came closest to beating a star-studded Australia in Brisbane, then upset Fiji 21-14 a week later in Wellington, their first win over the Pacific Islanders since the 1993 World Cup at Murrayfield.

The basis of a well-drilled unit is found in Harlequins' Ben Gollings, Cambridge student Simon Amor, Jamie Noon of Newcastle, and Saracens speedster Richard Haughton, while Wasps hooker Phil Greening and GloucesterĀ¹s Henry Paul add valuable experience.

Samoa, whose entire squad except for Tanner Vili is locally based, have also shown marked improvement in this series, reaching two finals, and in Brisbane defeating Fiji for the first time since the 1993 Hong Kong final.

Their progress follows development of their own domestic sevens series last September.

Coach Romeo Ah Chong is without giant forward Kitiona Viliamu (injured) and playmaker Faatonu Fili (unavailable), but he has stability in captain Leamy Toleafoa, Faapito Matagitau, Ponali Tapelu plus flyers Tauvaga Faafou, Gaolo Elisara and Ron Fanuatanu.

Overall, the sell-out Hong Kong crowd can enjoy the weekend knowing that the final pairing truly is open to offers. With little to choose from between half a dozen teams those that make fewest mistakes will surely be the last ones standing.

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