Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
by Ted Hardy, Editor, Rugby America
This weekend, the HSBC World Series is back in action with the world famous HongKong 7’s. With South Africa’s surprise victory in Las Vegas, the race atop the standings is heating up. England and New Zealand are still tied atop the standings, but Fiji, Samoa, and South Africa are hot on their heels.
Team USA has dropped to 11th in the standings and come into the next phase of the HSBC World Series in need of improved performances.
Keep a close eye on Hong Kong, as the only tournament that incorporates a field larger than 16 teams, the added teams bring variety and opportunity to the tournament. As the IRB is in the planning stages of growing the HSBC World Series, one of the elements on the table is having more teams at each tournament. Hong Kong gives fans a glimpse of what may be the future of World Series events.
The expanded format has 24 teams divided up into six pools. The winner of each pool is guaranteed a spot in the Cup Quarterfinals with the two remaining Cup spots going to the two next best teams based on record and points difference. The points differential factor can make or break teams like the USA that are in favorable pools.
Series co-leaders, New Zealand, head up Pool A along with France, Portugal, and Korea. New Zealand should have little trouble winning the pool. France comes into the tournament as the #2 in the pool, but don’t overlook Portugal. The Portuguese side has made a habit of giving core teams trouble and France will be on their radar. Korea rounds out the pool and should be in for three defeats, but will get valuable experience in the process.
Pool B is led by co-leaders England, followed by Team USA, Japan, and China. England have been one of the form teams of the season. They play a clinical and well drilled form of rugby. They have also been amongst the stingiest defensive teams on the World Series. The USA have been a bit of a disappointment thus far, but at the midway stage of the World Series could turn things around fast. Japan is a team that could get better with more experience and China might sneak up on Japan or even the USA.
Samoa leads Pool C along with Scotland, Tonga, and Mexico. Aside from Mexico, this is one of the tougher pools in Hong Kong. Defending World Series champs, Samoa, have yet to win a tournament this season and are overdue. Scotland has gotten better at every stop and plays calculated rugby. Tonga is always a wild card and has the ability to create some waves. As with some of the other inexperienced sides in Hong Kong, Mexico will take their lumps, but come away better for it.
The battle in Pool D should be the most anticipated in Hong Kong. Fiji heads the pool, but have Kenya, Russia, and Malaysia in which to contest. Fiji reached the finals in LasVegas in February and could be on the verge of winning a tournament in the near future. With their team fully reassembled, Kenya was back in form during the last two stops on the series. When they’re on, Kenya can beat any team on the World Series. Russia is another fun team to watch. A team that could benefit greatly by expanding the field in the future, Russia could be pushing for Top 10 status with more game time. Malaysia will take the brunt of teams pushing to make the Cup round.
Pool E is headed by Las Vegas champs, South Africa along with Wales, Hong Kong, and Spain. South Africa looked great in Las Vegas and are beaming with confidence, expect that to continue in Hong Kong. Wales are a ripe contender to advance to the Cup round as they always play South Africa tough and should rack up points against Hong Kong and Spain. The hosts, Hong Kong as well as Spain are getting their first taste of World Series play this season and should struggle.
Pool F should be considered the pool least likely to produce more than one Cup participant. Not because the teams lack skill, but because the pool has four solid teams which should nullify any chance to pump up the points differential. Australia head the pool and have Argentina, Canada, and Zimbabwe to face. All four teams have experience on the World Series and are capable of putting together an upset. Even though they are the top seed in the pool, Australia is far from being a lock to advance.
For Team USA in Pool B, they come into Hong Kong having played in 60 World Series tournaments all-time with a record of 117-189-2. The USA have won the Shield title in the last two tournaments (Wellington & Las Vegas), but are expected to do far better. The team has struggled with inconsistency, especially when facing teams above them in the standings.
The USA face off against Japan on the opening night of the tournament. The two teams met twice in Las Vegas, withthe USA winning both matches, including the Shield Final. All-time the USA is 5-1 against Japan, but the scores have been relatively close. Japan pushed the USA to the finish in the Shield Final and may have a bit of confidence in their corner. To add to the scenario, Team USA really needs to run up the score if they want to have a shot at advancing to the Cup round. A margin of at least 15-20 or more points may be needed.
Next, Team USA takes on China on Day 2 of the three day tournament. All-time the USA is 6-0 against China and have outscored them 200-29. Team USA will need to be lethally clinical against China and run up the score. This is the game that could make or break the USA’s Cup hopes.
The USA’s final pool opponent is England. Both teams should come into the game with 2-0 records, so the game should serve to decide the pool. The USA has taken down England before and this game would be a mighty confindence builder for the squad should they do it again. However, for the sake of reaching the Cup Quarterfinals, the USA need to keep this game close. If England runs away with the game, any point differential built up against Japan and China will be erased.
Team USA brings a solid and experienced side to Hong Kong. Injuries hit the team hard in the forwards, but Head Coach Al Caravelli answered by bringing back Todd Clever who recently finished play for his professional side in Japan. Rookie, Taylor Mokate also comes into the squad in the forwards after getting a taste in Las Vegas as an injury replacement. Both are powerful any dynamic forwards. The big question will be how quickly can Clever get back into sevens mode after having not played since 2009.
“The squad came together, gelled, and increased its teamwork around our defensive patterns,” said Caravelli.
“The last four sessions have been on the upswing. We still have a lot of growth for this young squad but we are headed in the right direction.”
A favorable pool, experience, and desire… Team USA has all of the elements needed to break their recent skid and turn the season around in Hong Kong. The key will be the opener against Japan.
The Hong Kong 7’s stop on the HSBC World Series kicks off this weekend. Stay tuned to Rugby America for coverage and results.