Hong Kong - All Blacks superstar Sonny Bill
Williams will stake his claim for an Olympic sevens spot when the informal
dress rehearsal for Rio takes place this week in Hong Kong.
The code-swapping, two-time Rugby World Cup-winner
leads an unusually high-profile field at the famous Hong Kong sevens as a
number of top names make their bid for Rio.
Williams has missed the last two sevens
world series tournaments with a knee problem and he will be keen to prove his
worth just four months out from the Olympics.
Fellow All Black Liam Messam is also with
New Zealand while colourful Wallabies winger Nick "Honey Badger"
Cummins is hoping to nail down a spot with Australia.
French Six Nations star Virimi Vakatawa is
in Hong Kong and New England Patriots Super Bowl-winner Nate Ebner is training
with the USA squad with his eye on Rio.
The heavyweight line-up has ramped up
anticipation for Hong Kong, the seventh of 10 world series tournaments and the
highlight of the annual sevens calendar.
Hong Kong's format and sold-out,
40 000-capacity stadium are the closest the sevens series comes to conditions
in Rio, making it a vital part of teams' preparations.
The championship standings could also
hardly be tighter with just one point each between leaders Fiji, South Africa
and New Zealand.
Although an injury now could ruin a
player's Olympic chances, coaches insisted games would be as intense as ever in
the three-day tournament starting on Friday.
"I've got 24 players that are wanting
to go to Rio to be Olympians so they're not holding back," said New
Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens.
"They're fighting for positions to go
to Rio so it really makes it very competitive amongst the squad that I
Exuberant Fiji are perennial favourites in
Hong Kong but they remain under a cloud after the devastation of super cyclone
Winston, which killed 44 people in February.
"(Players) lost houses, families lost
livelihoods and five percent of the population is without a roof over their
heads at the moment, and there's a food shortage," said coach Ben Ryan.
"It's not been a lucky time for Fiji
and the boys have obviously been affected on a personal level from that.
"But saying that, Fijians are incredibly
resilient and the boys... they've not moaned about it, they haven't complained
about it and we certainly won't use that as an excuse for any lack of
"We're as well prepared as any of the
other sides. And the boys will have perhaps a little bit more motivation."
South Africa's Bryan Habana and Australia's
Quade Cooper are skipping Hong Kong for club duties with Toulon, while Wallaby
Henry Speight is out with an eye injury.
Olympic hosts Brazil will take part in a
12-team qualifying competition to earn a spot at next year's tournament, along
with newcomers the Cayman Islands.
Rugby will make its return to the Olympics
in August after a gap of 92 years since it was last included on the schedule at
the 1924 Games in Paris.