As everyone is certainly aware of by now the latest installment of the famous Hong Kong Sevens will take place this weekend. However, this year there is a bit of a twist. The tournament has long been known for its extended format of inviting 24 teams to participate rather than the usual 16. But not this year as the tournament is being divided into two separate competitions. The main competition involves the 15 core members of the IRB Sevens Series along with hosts Hong Kong while the new World Series Pre-Qualifier will feature 12 teams.
So what is the World Series Pre-Qualifier? In order to create more stability among teams, the IRB decided to change the format of the IRB Sevens Series this year to include 15 core teams that would travel to each stop along with one invited team. Last year in Hong Kong, Canada, Spain, and Portugal each won the right to join the previous 12 core teams. But to keep things fresh and teams on their toes, the IRB decided that every year three of the core teams would be forced to play against other teams to keep their spot on the Series. That’s where the Pre-Qualifier comes in. Twelve teams from each of the IRB’s six regions have won the right to compete in a tournament that could give them a chance to compete in the promotion/relegation tournament in London. Hong Kong, as winner of the Asian Sevens Series has already booked a place in the tournament.
So who are these teams? Some of the more recognizable teams in the tournament include Japan, Tonga, Russia, and Zimbabwe. Each of those countries had has significant time previously on the IRB Sevens Series, often picking up hardware. Last year Japan narrowly missed out on promotion after losing to Portugal in the third place match. So far this year, Zimbabwe, Russia, and Uruguay have all played in one event while Tonga has played in two. While none of those teams has made the Cup or even the Bowl competition, Tonga and Zimbabwe have made it to the Shield finals, meaning they have beat core teams. There is a definite gap between the non-core and core teams on the circuit, but in 7’s it doesn’t take more than a few brilliant plays to bridge that gap.
Other teams participating in the competition include Chinese Taipei, Cook Islands, Georgia, Tunisia, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil. All of these countries are still developing their 7’s programs and will likely struggle against their more experience counterparts, but it would be a miscalculation to count them out. For example, the Cook Islands has plenty of athleticism while Georgia has a whole stable of players it could bring in for the tournament. Brazil has notched a win over Argentina in the past and is capable of an upset. Mexico is a highly organized team that will punish mistakes.
So who are the favorites to advance? The tournament will be divided into three pools with the two pool winners advancing to the quarterfinals along with the top two second place finishers. Tonga and Uruguay are expected to be the top teams in Pool E, which also includes Tunisia and Chinese Taipei. Pool F has Japan as the clear favorite but then it’s tight between Georgia, Brazil, and Jamaica. Brazil have the most experience of those three teams and have been putting a lot of resources into the game, but it would be difficult to count the other two out. Pool G is the “group of death” with Russia, Zimbabwe, Mexico, and the Cook Islands. Each team has enough weapons to advance although Russia and Zimbabwe have the most experience.
Still, no matter who comes out of the pre-qualifier, it’s difficult to see them picking off more than one of the established core teams. Each of these teams when given the chance on the IRB Sevens Series this year has failed to put together an impressive string of matches and each has been beaten handily by a core team that could find themselves in the relegation zone at season’s end. Just this year the U.S. has beaten Zimbabwe and Tonga by wide margins. They also beat Mexico by a healthy score line at the NACRA 7’s last August. But anything is possible and in a knock-out match, one mistake could easily find a core team put out of the Series.
No matter what happens, it’s important that this tournament is taking place. For much of the world 7’s is the only way that they will ever have a chance against the established teams. What these teams need the most is playing time and with spots on the IRB Sevens Series events now limited, this tournament, along with the promotion/relegation tournament and the Sevens World Cup are important for the growth of rugby. Who knows, maybe a country like Jamaica will put together a strong squad and change the face of rugby in the Caribbean?
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