The Hong Kong Sevens has long been the Crown Jewels of the international rugby circuit, even now that it is part of the World Sevens Rugby series.
There were calls at the start — many calls, in fact — for the circuit to finish in the Chinese territory as its history, huge popularity and being the tournament every team would like to win, would provide a fitting climax to the series.
But instead the people who call the shots at rugby’s governing bodies preferred the series to finish near where they were based. So the first series, in 2000, ended, bizarrely, in Paris, while Cardiff, London, Edinburgh, and then London again have all been the final legs. Since 2016, Paris and then London has become the 1-2 finish.
But Hong Kong has had the last laugh: first came the initial appeasement, with it being deemed the most important leg of the circuit, as teams used to get more series points for the HK leg than for any other (30 for the winner versus 22 in the other legs).
That stopped in 2011, and all legs are now equal, points wise, but Hong Kong has still proved the most popular leg with spectators and with the players.
Hong Kong the key leg
But best of all, Hong Kong tends to be the leg that makes or breaks the season. It is the leg where teams that get a good result there, if not win the whole leg, tend to go on to win the circuit.
Eight of the 18 circuit winners won the HK leg, while the other overall champions finished either second (five times) or third (five times). In other words, to win the HSBC Sevens series, you must finish in the top three in HK.
What the importance of Hong Kong also means is that the final legs tend to often be rendered meaningless by the time the circus arrives in town. The series tends to have been decided by the time they enter the final legs and they tend to be anti-climatic.
So perhaps Hong Kong is lucky not to be the final leg after all.
At the moment, the series is still hanging in the balance, with the USA (on 113 points) ahead, but with 12-time series winners and World Cup holders New Zealand (106 points), and three-time series champions and Olympic champions Fiji (101) hot on their heels.
Defending series champions South Africa are a bit further back on 89 points, in a chasing pack that also includes England (80) and to a lesser extent Australia (65), Samoa (59) and Argentina (56).
So whoever wins this weekend will make a significant statement, but the teams finishing second or third are still in a good place, as past results have shown.
As this year’s circuit is the main qualifier for the Olympics next year — the top four qualify automatically — means that the jostling for a top four series finish means that Hong Kong will be even more hotly contested than usual.
Only four winners ever in HK
Only four teams have ever won in Hong Kong the 18 times it has been held there since the series began: Fiji (seven times), New Zealand (five), England (four) and Samoa (twice).
Three-times series winners South Africa have never won there, and now has current series leader USA, while Australia have won the HK Sevens five times but not since the World Sevens Series began.
Their last win was in 1988 — 31 years ago — with a team coached by 1991 Rugby World Cup winner Bob Dwyer and that included Wallabies stars David Campese, Michael Lynagh, Tim Gavin and Jeff Miller.
How Australia would love to have a team like that again.
World Series qualifiers
But Hong Kong is not just a make or break leg for teams hoping to win the series or to qualify for the Olympics, it is also do-or-die time for teams hoping to join the World Sevens Series circuit itself for a whole season (some o the teams involved, such as Chile, Zimbabwe and Tonga have played in the series this year, but as invited teams according to the legs in their region).
Every year several teams — this year it is 12 sides — vie for the chance to be included in the following year’s series, and this year sees Chile, Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland, Russia and Tonga leading the charge.
It’s hard to predict which team will win the qualifiers, with Russia, who were in last year’s series, eager to get back in and now coached by Sevens legend Waisale Serevi; Ireland, who acquitted themselves spectacularly in last year’s series when they played the final two legs, Germany, who have lost the past two finals in the Qualifiers or dark horses Chile, who have done well in the legs they have played in this year’s series, Hong Kong and Tonga.
As we go to press, the tournament, which is played concurrently with the main event, has already begun, and the favoured six teams have won their opening matches handily.
But there are still two days’ worth of games to come, and Jamaica, Uganda, Uruguay, the Cook Islands, the Philippines and Zimbabwe still have a chance.
Watch this space and follow the live action at the HSBC World Rugby Series page.