Kiwis tipped for Sevens crown
Hong Kong - World Series leaders New Zealand are favourites to retain their Hong Kong Sevens crown this weekend but face a tough pool including South Africa and Wales.
New Zealand, still basking in their World Cup triumph in the 15-a-side game in October, top the HSBC Sevens World Series and are seeking their 11th triumph at the most high-profile sevens event in the world.
New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens said his side faced a tough battle to hold on to their title in Hong Kong, the sixth stop in the nine-leg series.
The event is a highlight of the city's social calendar, particularly for expats. Each year thousands of fans pour in from around the world, cramming bars and donning fancy dress.
"There is always pressure to perform at IRB (International Rugby Board) tournaments, especially Hong Kong. It is one of the toughest draws in Hong Kong during all the years I have been coaching," Tietjens said.
"There are no easy games in the pool stage and we need to play our strongest team in every game and some players may not get as much game time as they normally might."
The Kiwis are currently top of the series standings on 92 points. Their closest challengers Fiji are on 87. South Africa have 76 and England are fourth, a further two points adrift.
But with unpredictability a feature of sevens - a high-octane, abbreviated form of rugby union with matches of just 14 minutes, the table could look very different by the end of the weekend.
England coach Ben Ryan said Samoa, Argentina and Kenya would prove tough pool opponents.
"We have to play as well as we can really. We have a difficult pool, three very good opponents and can't look beyond Argentina on Friday night," he said.
"The tournament is a lot harder, no easy games. But it is still Hong Kong, still a special place.
"It's got more competitive than it was last year. The top teams are still there but the teams below are playing better and you have to work much harder and not slip up."
Traditional powerhouses such as the Kiwis and Fiji, who have won a record 12 times in Hong Kong - including two world cup wins - are also keeping their eye on potential dark horses such as mid-table Kenya.
Samoa, who lie fifth in the series standings, stunned New Zealand with a last-gasp victory in the final of the US leg of the World Series last month.
But New Zealand remain the team to beat, despite the challenge from the likes of South Africa and Wales, who will be lifted by the Six Nations grand slam win by their 15-a-side counterparts.
This year's tournament, which runs from Friday until Sunday, doubles as a qualification event to identify three new teams to participate in an expanded 15 core team world series next season.
A 12-team core team competition will contest the Hong Kong Sevens cup, plate and bowl with points being awarded in the world series standings.
A separate qualification tournament will be held for the remaining 12 teams. The top three finishers gain automatic entry to the sevens world series in 2012/13.