IT’S all happening in Hong Kong this weekend, with its prestigious Sevens hosting 28 teams in the men’s event. Sixteen are in the main draw while the rest, including the host and Japan, have to play in the qualifiers, with the winner gaining automatic entry to the Series for next year.
This year’s International Rugby Union 7s series have been very competitive, with three teams – South Africa, New Zealand and Fiji – best placed to win the title with three rounds to go beginning this weekend.
South Africa lead the table with 116 points, two better than the All Blacks 7s. Fiji is third with 95.
Each of the three has won two rounds: the ABs 7s in Australia and Wellington, Fiji in Dubai and Tokyo and the South African Blitzbokke at home in Port Elizabeth and Las Vegas.
Fiji is the defending champion in Hong Kong, where they have won 14 times in the tournament’s 39 editions, including the one two years ago.
For the South Africans though Hong Kong has not been a successful venue compared to what NZ and Fiji have achieved but coach Neil Powell is upbeat with what his boys have shown this year and is optimistic his team may well win its maiden title in Hong Kong.
A total of 120,000 fans are expected over the three days of competition which has seen the likes of Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brooke, Christian Cullen and Mils Muliaina of New Zealand providing so much excitement for spectators.
So too George Gregan and Joe Roff of Australia; Lawrence Dallaglio, Ben Foden and Matt Dawson of England; Sireli Bobo, Vilimoni Delasau and Rupeni Caucau of Fiji and Jean de Villiers, Brent Russell and Bryan Habana of South Africa.
Now that 7s will be an Olympic sport beginning with Rio in 2016, the abbreviated version of the game takes on a higher profile, with countries preparing their teams like never before.
But while the world series mean more opportunities for up-and-coming players to prove their worth, the international rugby calendar since the game turned professional in 1995 makes it impossible for players on the fringe of making it into Test rugby and also current Test players from taking part, unlike the time when the players mentioned above played in Hong Kong.
As the competition gets underway, one young player in New Zealand will not be seen running past defenders again on a rugby field while the future of two others is for now uncertain.
Buxton Popoali’i of the Highlanders and who was a New Zealand 7s player has been advised by doctors to quit the game at the age of 24 due to a heart problem.
Popoali’i had an aortic heart valve replaced during a nine-hour surgery earlier this month and most recently said that he is just happy to be alive.
Another player who has been having a problem with a valve is Chiefs centre Robbie Fruean.
The 25-year-old who previously was a star in the Crusaders backline will have to undergo a third open surgery in seven years.
Fruean has arrhythmia or rapid heart rate and recently came off the bench against Stormers only to be replaced after 21 minutes after having breathing difficulties.
Most commentators in New Zealand agree that if not for his heart condition, Fruean would have made it to the All Blacks by now.
The latest gloomy news concerns former All Blacks scrumhalf Piri Weepu, who was diagnosed as having a minor stroke.
The 30-year-old who now plays for the Blues in fact played three Super Rugby games while having this condition because he was earlier thought to be suffering from migraine.
Opinions differ as to whether he can continue playing but the worst case scenario points to a retirement. On the bright side Weepu could be out of the game for maybe six weeks.
Doctors recommended a scan when Weepu started slurring in his speech, with one doctor even describing him as sounding like a drunk. Further checks later showed that he has a small hole in the heart.