As we enter the famed Hong Kong 7's for 2016, the top of the ladder is as close as ever this season!
1. Fiji 106 Series Points
2. South Africa 105
3. New Zealand 104
With four tourneys left, any of the three could claim the 2015-16 World Series crown. As Rio 2016 draws ever closer, every performance has larger implications!
Let's take a peek at the pools!
POOL A: Kenya, New Zealand, France, Samoa
The Samoans broke through & won the Plate in Vancouver, beating a tough USA squad 31-19. They'll be riding high on confidence & that may be enough to make the difference against three sides they know they can play with. France gets Virimi Vakatawa back from Six Nations duty & that addition could also be enough to shake up the pool. He's a tremendous offensive threat & he opens up a ton of space for players like 100-try man Julian Candelon. No Terry Bouhroaua this weekend as playmaker though for Les Bleus. New Zealand carried that huge Cup trophy home from Vancouver & they'll have Sonny Bill Williams in the side for the biggest stage in sevens. We know how Sonny Bill plays on the big stage! Meanwhile, Kenya will be looking to bounce back from a dreadful one point effort in Vancouver, losing 24-7 to Russia in the Shield Semis.
POOL B: South Africa, England, Scotland, Russia
South Africa's got the edge for a QF spot here. The Blitzboks will add Ryan Kankowski to the fold in Hong Kong & what a ball hawk he is! However, Scotland has to be seen as having a leg up on England for the second berth. They beat England 24-14 in Vegas & had a compelling performance in a 19-7 triumph over Argentina in Vancouver. The men in white have clearly lost their groove and will need some inspiration & a bit more ball in hand to get it back. Dan Norton needs five tries to reach the 200 mark for his World Series career & England will need as many tries as they can get from him! Finally, Russia has a four point lead on Portugal in the relegation fight. They'll be looking to build & gain more confidence as they face important day two matches to stay on tour. They got a ton last round with a huge win over Kenya.
POOL C: Argentina, USA, Australia, Portugal
Australia have been on form of late, winning second place in Las Vegas & third place in Vancouver. They're playing strong, sound rugby with an upgraded danger capacity on offense. To that mix, the Aussies add vets Cam Clark & Ed Jenkins. No Quade Cooper this round but Nick Cummins is wearing the number one jersey. The Honey Badger will be hard to ignore come selection time for Rio 2016, surely. He knows the way to the try line as well or better than anyone...including the American speedsters they'll face in pool play. The US played a classic in Vancouver, losing to Fiji 31-26 in extra time. That match clearly showed the Eagles to be as capable as any outfit in the world. If the US can play like that consistently, they'll be a gold medal threat in Rio. Meanwhile, the Pumas have had a strong campaign of growth as a side and could beat either of the aforementioned sides here. The Aussies have had a matchup advantage on Argentina, most recently winning 26-12 in Las Vegas. The Americans have a clear speed edge as well but the Pumas counter attack will take advantage of mistakes & we know they're capable of forcing them in bunches.
POOL D: Fiji, Canada, Korea, Wales
Looks like a free pass for Fiji to the quarterfinals. Korea makes the tourney having missed out on the qualifier, similar to Belgium last year. While they'll have a lot of local support, they're outmatched in terms of experience. However, they do have a lot of experience on the Asian 7's scene & have been building by playing against the likes of Japan & Hong Kong. Expect a lot of heart & determination from the Koreans. Meanwhile, Wales & Canada have a score to settle here. The Welsh have had the upper hand lately, beating the Canadians in both Vancouver (26-19) & Las Vegas (17-10)! With a ticket to the QF's at stake in their clash, expect a LOT of intensity. That may be one of the games of the pool stage! Give me Canada this weekend though.
QF break down as: 1st Pool A vs 2nd Pool D, 1st Pool C vs 2nd Pool B, 1st Pool D vs 2nd Pool A & 1st Pool B vs 2nd Pool C.
If New Zealand were to win pool A, they'd love their road to the final versus Wales/Canada & a potential matchup with Australia, who they have frustrated lately, in the semis. In the other half of the bracket, a Fiji-South Africa semi may be on the cards.
That said, the winner of Pool C would get a great chance to settle a score with the All Black 7's whether it be the USA or Australia. And it'd be a perfect time for an upset to take place.
As my finals predictions have been the kiss of death this year (Lucky I didn't play SuperBru this season), I'll take New Zealand on the basis of momentum, Sonny Bill & the easier path through a tough weekend.
We will have tons of coverage of Hong Kong & Atlanta as well as the Rugby Europe test matches (Am looking at you, Cyprus & Austria!) on @Rugby_Global this weekend!