IRB Rugby Sevens: A Look Ahead to Hong Kong
In past years, Hong Kong was something of a showcase on the IRB Sevens Series. Its expanded tournament format allowed for some great storylines, as minnow nations got their shot at taking on the world's elite. This year the Hong Kong Sevens will play out slightly differently.
Finally, after far too long, the International Rugby Board (IRB) has offered a promotion and relegation pathway for the Series; last year, Hong Kong hosted that event. This season, the IRB has moved the qualifying process to the final stop of the season in London; however, Hong Kong is still set to retain something of its traditionally important role.
Where once the tournament boasted 24 national teams in competition, this year's edition will only feature the normal compliment of 16. But while the usual series competitors fight and claw for every available point in the IRB standings, 12 other teams will be battling for the right to compete in the promotional tournament later this year in London.
With a total of 28 nations in action, this year's Hong Kong Sevens—despite the changes—promises to be one of the most important in recent memory.
We're here to break down all of the action for you in this Bleacher Report analysis of the main tournament draw.
We begin with a very tough Pool A; one which many observers will be rightly labelling the pool of death.
Pool A: Can South Africa Keep Their Form?
Coming off of a stunning defeat of New Zealand in the Cup Final of the USA Sevens in Las Vegas, South Africa would seem to be the favourite—if there is one to be found—among those who could conceivably challenge the Sevens All Blacks for the remainder of this season.
The Blitzbok are currently ranked second in the IRB series standings; however, they have not been as consistent as their New Zealand rivals and to date that has been their undoing. In order to pose a threat to the Series leaders, South Africa will need to put together a string of immense performances over the final four events of this campaign.
That task was made more difficult when the pool draw for the Hong Kong event was announced.
Three strong opponents will be waiting for the USA Cup Champions, including Australia, Argentina and Wales. None of these challengers have covered themselves with glory this season, but each will be targeting a place in the Cup quarterfinals, in a pool where anything can—and likely will—happen.
The strains of the modern IRB Series, which now runs on back-to-back weekends, puts pressure on teams to rest their stars as often as possible. Pool A offers little chance of that for any of its competitors.
One would think that South Africa should be a fairly safe bet to advance, and certainly they will have to in order to retain any shot at challenging for the Series title.
Which team goes on to claim the second Cup qualifying berth is anyone's guess. This is a pool that may end up offering some of the fiercest battles of the tournament.
Pool B, on the other hand, is a somewhat different story.
Pool B: All Black On The Horizon
With a 23-point lead in the IRB Series standings, New Zealand need not worry too much about their crushing defeat to South Africa at the USA Sevens in February. But I wouldn't tell that to Head Coach Gordon Tietjens.
The 40-21 loss to the South Africans was such a shocking result that Coach Tietjens will no doubt be expecting the most ruthless form possible from his well-rested squad.
If all goes as expected, New Zealand is likely to sail through the pool round, even with such stiff competition as France (No. 5) and Kenya (No. 6) blocking their path.
If the New Zealanders return, as expected, to their fearsome best, then it will surely be a battle between France and the Kenyans for the final Pool B Cup quarterfinal spot.
Sadly, the United States, the team that will round out this pool, has given no evidence that they have what it takes to engineer a top-two finish. The best the Americans will hope for is to put forward strong performances against their more highly-ranked opponents, while remaining healthy for their run at the bowl on day two.
As in this pool, Pool C will offer a clear favourite to advance, although from there things get a little more complicated.
Pool C: Samoa's Golden Opportunity
If there is another team out there who could possibly make a run at the 2012-13 Series title, it would have to be Samoa.
The Pacific Islanders already have one tournament win to their credit this season; however, since no team has, as yet, won two tournaments, they will have to make themselves the first if they are to keep their Series dreams alive.
One would think that Scotland, England and Portugal—none of whom have managed to fight their way into the top eight in the Series standings—will be hard pressed to confront the might of the Super Samoans, but what happens from their is an interesting question.
By all rights England, who have a tournament win on their record this season, should be favourites to grab the other Cup quarterfinal berth, but their performance in Las Vegas was shockingly poor.
The window opens then for Scotland or Portugal to make their way in the top eight in Hong Kong and to claim points that might very well help them avoid a relegation fight at season's end.
With all teams coming to Hong Kong fully rested, there will be no excuses, and the result of Pool C's action might very well have a direct effect on which team's stay on the IRB World Series next season and which teams are sent packing.
Pool D: Can Canada Take Their Chances?
When one looks up and down the IRB standings, there appears to be six places separating Fiji (No. 4) and Canada (No. 10), but their recent form tells a very different story.
Fiji clearly deserves their status, having finished fourth in Las Vegas where they lost out to Samoa in the battle for 3rd place. Canada, on the other hand, is coming off perhaps their finest Sevens performance of all time, when they won the Plate competition in the USA, entitling them to a 5th place finish.
With almost their entire roster now at full health, Canadian Coach Geraint John and his team will be arriving in Hong Kong expecting to challenge for a place in the Cup quarterfinals.
If both Canada and Fiji play the kind of rugby they are capable of, they should easily claim the two qualification berths on offer, leaving Spain and Hong Kong to battle their way through the Bowl and Shield.
The real question for both of the top teams in Pool D is whether they can improve on their already strong performances from Las Vegas.
Pool D could possibly be the place to look, when searching for a dark horse at the Hong Kong Sevens.
Hong Kong Sevens Preview: Conclusion
With five different winners from five different IRB Sevens events during the 2012-13 season, trying to pick a winner in the Hong Kong Sevens is a challenging task. One thing is for certain: The picture at the top of the IRB Sevens standings is set to clarify in a big way following this tournament.
For those of you who can't wait, we leave you with a video of the IRB's top scores from the USA Sevens, where South Africa emerged as kings.
Our pool analysis may be over, but the great debate is just beginning. Bleacher Report is your home for fantastic discussion, along with all of the sports news you can handle.
So make your picks and state your allegiances. This year's Hong Kong Sevens is sure to have a huge impact on where the IRB Sevens Series goes from here.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RugbyScribe.