In the wee hours of the morning on Friday, 24 teams kick off play on day one of the famous Hong Kong Sevens.
One of the most prestigious sevens tournaments on the face of the planet, the Hong Kong Sevens brings together 24 of the top rugby sevens teams in the world for three days of exciting rugby action.
With 24 teams in play, Hong Kong differs from the other stops on the IRB Sevens World Series. The teams are broken into six pools of four teams, compared to the standard four pools at the other IRB Series stops.
Each of the pool winners advance to the Cup Quarterfinals, with a shot at the tournament title. The remaining two slots in the Cup round go to two wild cards teams based on which of the non-pool winning teams, with with records of 2-1 in pool play and have the greatest points margin.
Samoa rides into the tournament with two consecutive tournament championships (Las Vegas, Adelaide) and have inched within two points of series leader New Zealand. Led by star player Mikaele Pesamino, the squad hasn't lost a game since the Cup Final in Wellington, New Zealand in early February.
Pesamino is lighting up the IRB Series with a series-leading 39 tries in only five tournaments.
"For me (scoring tries) it's awesome. I feel great because my aim is to be top try scorer at all these tournaments and also the Series, put Samoa up to the top level, also myself and my family," said Pesamino.
The expanded field in Hong Kong provides opportunities for teams that don't get to participate in many IRB Sevens Series events. This includes squads from up and coming Russia, as well as Italy, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, China, Zimbabwe, and Korea.
"In Sevens, we're going to be under huge pressure to perform in the Olympic sports - you've seen the reaction of President Medvedev on Russia's performance in the Winter Olympics," said Howard Thomas, the Russian Rugby Union Chief Executive in reference to Medvedev demanding that Russian sports officials step down after the country won a disappointing fifteen medals, three gold, at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
All of these teams are looking to make their mark among the big boys of the IRB Series and will have their chance this weekend.
Fresh off of their first ever trip to the Cup finals in Adelaide, the USA heads to Hong Kong confident in their ability to stand among the best on the series.
“The boys will be up and ready (for Hong Kong). We just have to get better and build more,” said USA Sevens Head Coach Al Caravelli.
Without any serious injuries to the squad in Adelaide and Paul Emerick back from his three game suspension for a dangerous tackle, the USA is at full strength for Hong Kong.
In fact, they may be even better than they were in Adelaide.
The USA played the entire final day of the tournament without Emerick who has become a major factor on the IRB circuit. In the process of filling that void, Zach Pangelinan stepped up and provided the USA with quality minutes that he may not have received had Emerick not been suspended.
Adelaide gave powerful forward Mark Bokhoven a chance to get back on the pitch and acclimated with the heightened play on the IRB circuit after a series of injuries kept him out of action this season.
Captain Kevin Swiryn also had a break-out performance in Australia. After admittedly playing below his standards in Wellington and Las Vegas, Swiryn showed everyone why he was considered one of the best players on the IRB Series last year scoring four tries in Adelaide and playing with a spark that had been missing since he picked up an injury playing for the Eagles in the Fall.
The rest of the team are also coming into their own, especially Nick Edwards who continues to be among the leaders in tries on the IRB World Series.
The USA find themselves in the most manageable pool they’ve seen all season. That’s not to say that the pool will not provide the USA with plenty of resistance. With the wild card factor in play, the USA will not only be concerned with winning matches, but also points scored. The final two Cup Quarterfinalists will be decided by points differential.
On day one of the tournament the USA gets started against Portugal. The two teams have met eight times on the IRB Series splitting the games evenly. The scores have been tight as well. Their last meeting came earlier in the season in Dubai where the USA narrowly won 5-0. Portugal hasn’t been in the last few events, so they will lack the continuity and momentum that the USA has built, giving the USA the upper hand.
Pressure will be a major factor for the USA players. Will their status as favorites combined with the need to score points take them out of their game plan? Portugal may serve as the most difficult game in the pool for the USA.
The USA starts off day two of the tournament facing Thailand. The two teams have met only once with the USA winning easily 38-7 in Hong Kong in 2001. Thailand should serve as a minor speed bump for the USA. The major onus will be on the USA to run up the score in an attempt to build the largest point differential possible.
They’ll need to do that, because their final pool opponent is none other than Fiji. The two teams know each other well and you can be certain that Fiji will be ready for the USA after the Americans nearly ambushed them in Las Vegas.
Fiji is also looking to bounce back after losing, an unheard of, three games in Adelaide. If the USA sticks to their plan, this is a winnable game. At the very least, the USA needs to keep the scoreline close to improve their chances of reaching the Cup round.
“We need to keep going forward in our development and continue to grow as a team. We’d like to consistently make the top eight, and that means we have to play a tough game, every game,” added Caravelli. “We need to get in the mentality of making every game a final. I have a lot of faith that these guys will be up for that.”
Hong Kong serves as another landmark on the USA’s road to becoming considered among the elite of the sevens world.
Another trip to the Cup round is certainly achievable for the USA and for once it won’t take an upset to get there. The pressure is now on and may prove just as formidable of an opponent.
Pools for the Hong Kong Sevens
Pool A: Samoa, Argentina, Russia, Italy
Pool B: New Zealand, Scotland, France, Chinese Taipei
Pool C: Fiji, USA, Portugal, Thailand
Pool D: Australia, Canada, Tonga, China
Pool E: England, Wales, Japan, Hong Kong
Pool F: Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Korea
IRB Sevens World Series Standings (Top 10)
1. New Zealand
7. South Africa
This article was originally published on Rugby America .