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PREVIEW: Hong Kong Sevens

ROUND SIX: The famous Hong Kong Stadium atmosphere is set to welcome the world’s best men’s and women’s Sevens teams to the Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens as the sixth and penultimate round of HSBC SVNS 2024 takes place on April 5-7.

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A sell-out crowd of 120,000 fans is expected across the three-day spectacle and captains of the 12 men’s and women’s teams got into the festival spirit on Wednesday by wearing fancy dress items for the traditional captains’ photo in front of the stadium’s iconic South stand.

There is sure to be drama and fireworks on the pitch as well as Argentina have the chance to become men’s SVNS 2024 League Winners if they maintain their 20-point lead at the top of the standings, while Australia and New Zealand are locked in a thrilling battle for the women’s title ahead of the last regular season round in Singapore on May 3-5.

CLICK HERE to view SVNS 2024 standings

While French superstar Antoine Dupont is not in the French squad this time, fans will witness the highly anticipated Sevens debut of Australia’s most-capped men’s Test player Michael Hooper.

The pools for Hong Kong were drawn by Fijian Sevens legend Waisale Serevi at the conclusion of the previous round in Los Angeles and produced some mouthwatering clashes.

France face double Olympic champions Fiji in men’s Pool A, alongside Australia and Canada. Pool B sees current SVNS leaders Argentina together with LA finalists Great Britain, USA and reigning SVNS champions New Zealand. Ireland, Spain, Samoa and South Africa are in Pool C.

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The women’s draw sees second and third-placed New Zealand and France together in Pool A along with Brazil and Great Britain. Current SVNS leaders Australia are in Pool B with South Africa, Ireland and Fiji.

USA and Canada will renew their rivalry in Pool C alongside Japan and Spain.

The men’s and women’s team with the most cumulative points after seven rounds will claim the title of SVNS 2024 League Winners, while the top eight placed teams will earn their place in the new ‘winner takes all’ Grand Final, where the men’s and women’s SVNS Champions will be crowned in Madrid on May 31 to June 2.

Four teams – Argentina men, and Australia, New Zealand and France women – have already secured their spots in the SVNS Grand Final in Madrid and further teams are likely to confirm their places this weekend.

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Following the fifth round in Los Angeles, Argentina hold a 20-point lead in the men’s standings, having claimed three gold and one silver medals from the opening four rounds. Argentina have 90 points, ahead of Ireland on 70 and Fiji, who have enjoyed great success in Hong Kong over the years, is in third on 64 points.

Australia are top of the women’s standings with 90 points ahead of New Zealand in second with 86 points and France in third with 74 points. Australia got off to a flying start by winning the opening two rounds in Dubai and Cape Town, but New Zealand have come roaring back with victories at the last two rounds in Vancouver and Los Angeles to set up a thrilling climax to the women’s competition.

*Meanwhile, much has been made of the fact that the BlitzBoks, despite winning 40 HSBC SVNS tournaments on all continents, have not cracked gold at Hong Kong Stadium, and with the iconic tournament moving to a new venue next year, they will have one last shot at breaking that bogey.

One would expect some emotional baggage for this fairly experienced BlitzBok squad at the final event in the Son Ko Po suburb, but for the two youngest squad members, history counts for nothing.

Katlego Letebele and Quewin Nortje, who debuted for the team at the season opener in Dubai in December, enter the fray with no fear or favour and nothing else on their mind but to contribute to a winning effort.

Neither of these two former Junior Springboks are burdened by previous struggles in the Far East.

“I just want to contribute to the team,” Letebele explained. “I did not expect to be part of every tournament so far, given that I had to learn the tricks of the trade when I joined the squad last year. So, looking back, it is a blessed feeling knowing that I have progressed and learned so much in the last six months.”

Letebele feels that he has been contributing, whether on the field or off the bench: “I have a simple attitude, everything I do as part of the team, I want to contribute. Whether I am on the field starting a match or coming off the bench late in a game, I am doing whatever is needed from me to add to the team effort.”

Last year this time, Letebele was admiring the skills of some of the senior players, and now he is feeding them attacking options and making tackles alongside them.

“I would not have dreamt any of this when I joined the Sevens,” he said. “Here I am, travelling the world, representing my country and fighting hard alongside a great group of guys doing their best for the badge. That is massive for me.”

Letebele’s path has been made easier thanks to the input and encouragement from the senior players: “That has been massive. They helped me get to grips with the demands of Sevens and adjust to the insane pace of the game. This is a good time to return the favour.”

Nortje, who also played for the Junior Boks last year and has now re-joined Letebele in the BlitzBok squad, is kicking at his heels and can’t wait to tear up the turf in Hong Kong Stadium from Friday.

His memorable entry into Sevens – scoring in the final of his first event – was blighted by a hamstring injury sustained in Perth, and as a result, Nortje missed the North American leg of the World Series.

“It is great to be back,” said Nortje. “I was despondent when I broke down as most injuries put you back and I was enjoying myself out there.

“But I immediately changed my focus on the rehab process and how to get back to fitness again. It is important to rehab well, and I am pleased that I could come back in time for Hong Kong. I am ready to use my speed and chase kicks and whatever else is expected of me from the rest of the team.”

Nortje said his hamstring is feeling 100 percent and he is ready to play, and that his mind will be clear when he runs out at Hong Kong Stadium: “When Chris Dry asked me when I will be ready and I said Hong Kong, he told me that is one tournament everyone wants to play in. The stadium and surrounding mountains create a buzz, he said.

“The scenery was indeed as he described it, so now it is just for me to go out there and give everything I have for the BlitzBoks.”

Schedule
(Kick-off is local time – GMT plus eight hours)

Friday, April 5:

Men:
Spain v Samoa – 11.16
Ireland v South Africa – 11.39
Argentina v USA – 12.48
Great Britain v New Zealand – 13.11
Spain v South Africa – 14.23
Ireland v Samoa – 14.49
Argentina v New Zealand – 15.58
Great Britain v USA – 16.21
Fiji v Australia – 17.30
France v Canada – 17.56
Fiji v Canada – 20.33
France v Australia – 20-56

Women:
Canada v Japan – 10.30
USA v Spain – 10.53
South Africa v Ireland 12.02
Australia v Fiji – 12.25
Canada v Spain – 13.34
USA v Japan – 13.57
South Africa v Fiji – 15.12
Australia v Ireland – 15.35
France v Brazil – 16.44
New Zealand v Great Britain – 17.07
France v Great Britain – 19.47
New Zealand v Brazil – 20.10

Saturday, April 6:

Men:
Samoa v South Africa 10.16
Ireland v Spain – 10.39
USA v New Zealand – 11.48
Great Britain v Argentina – 12.11
Australia v Canada – 13.20
France v Fiji – 13.43

Women:
Japan v Spain – 09.30
USA v Canada – 09.53
Ireland v Fiji – 11.02
Australia v South Africa – 11.25
Brazil v Great Britain – 12.34
New Zealand v France – 12.57

*Play-offs start at 15.34 local time.

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