NEW ZEALAND is the defending Hong Kong champions and should be there or thereabouts this time around, but it will be interesting to see how it copes without a number of front-line players.
The Gordon Tietjens-coached side sits atop of the HSBC Sevens World Series standings with 92 points, five clear of rivals Fiji, as we approach the sixth leg of the IRB circuit.
Runner-up at last month’s Las Vegas Sevens, New Zealand will be without key strike weapon Frank Halai, who has been ruled out with a hamstring complaint.
Halai, who has scored 27 tries using his deadly combination of pace and strength this season, is not the only New Zealander in the medical ward. The Kiwis are also minus Solomon King (shoulder), Toby Arnold (knee) and Scott Curry (shoulder).
Their injuries have seen Tietjens turn to 19-year-old debutant Lolagi Visinia and recall Waikato’s Joe Webber.
Visinia was the star as Auckland lifted the national sevens title in Queenstown in January and played for the New Zealand School’s side out of Kelston Boys’ High School last year.
Aside from those two changes, most of the usual suspects are there: captain DJ Forbes, Tomasi Cama, Tim Mikkelson and Lote Raikabula, to name but a few.
Tietjens knows victory here will provide some much-needed breathing space between his side and the chasing pack.
“We currently lead the series ladder, but we know there are a few teams very close behind us, so we’ll need to be at the top of our game for this leg,” he says.
That could be easier said than done, as New Zealand has been placed in what shapes as a tricky Pool B alongside the third placed South Africa, Wales and the USA.
Across the Tasman, injuries have forced Australian coach Michael O’Connor to make several changes to his squad.
Ed Stubbs, Cameron Clark and Pama Fou have all been ruled out. Their ailments mean Shannon Walker will make his long-awaited debut, while there are also recalls for Damon Anderson and Lewis Holland, who himself returns from injury.
Australia, who is currently sixth in the overall standings, is in Pool C with Fiji, France and Scotland.
Elsewhere, Fiji has lost Emosi Vucago and Mitieli Nacagilevu. Vucago has taken up an overseas contract playing and coaching in the USA, while Nacagilevu has been ruled out for at least six weeks with a neck injury he sustained during a tournament in Fiji.
However, star performer Metuisela Talebula has turned down several offers from overseas clubs to play for his country.
South Africa has welcomed back from a shoulder injury captain Kyle Brown, as well as Chris Dry (knee) and Boom Prinsloo (neck).
Coach Paul Treu has made two changes to his side. The recalled William Small-Smith replaces the injured Mark Richards and Pieter Engelbrecht gets the nod ahead of Chase Minnaar. Steven Hunt will miss the tournament due to a family bereavement.
Vegas champions Samoa have received a major boost, with Ken Pisi, brother of Samoan 15-a-side internationals Tusi and George Pisi, having been included in its squad.
Samoa is the top seed in Pool A, where it will play England, Argentina and Kenya.
The Poms have a settled look to their 13-man squad, but coach Ben Ryan has included two new players – England under 20 centre Charlie Walker and halfback Sam Edgerley – in that mix. The latter takes over from Isoa Damudamu.
Humphrey Kayange has re-joined a Kenyan side which will be captained by Collins Injera from England, where he is studying.
The USA has a new coach, Alex Magleby, who steps into the breach after Al Caravelli stood down for personal reasons following the Vegas tournament.
As well as the main draw, two other tournaments will also be held in Hong Kong over the weekend.
The first is a women’s Challenge Cup event and the other is a tournament featuring 12 sides with non-core status.
The top three finishers from the latter will earn promotion to an expanded IRB circuit in 2012-13.
Pool A: Samoa, England, Argentina, Kenya
Pool B: New Zealand, South Africa, Wales, USA
Pool C: Fiji, Australia, France, Scotland
Pool D: Tonga, Uruguay, Hong Kong, China
Pool E: Canada, Spain, Zimbabwe, Philippines
Pool F: Portugal, Russia, Japan, Guyana
Points after five rounds: New Zealand (92), Fiji (87), South Africa (76), England (74), Samoa (69), Australia (52), France (52), Wales (51), Argentina (45), Canada (30), Scotland (28), Kenya (26), USA (23)« Back to Articles
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.