Hong Kong Sevens returns after three-year hiatus due to the pandemic

Canada will open the HSBC World Rugby Seven Series against Argentina on Friday as the Hong Kong Sevens returns after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

Organizers are hoping the 16-country tournament is not disrupted by tropical storm Nalgae as it travels northwest through the South China Sea.

The Hong Kong event has long been the jewel on the sevens circuit with full stands and a party-like atmosphere. The pandemic put that on hold in 2020 and '21.

But in September, Hong Kong eased COVID restrictions on travellers.

Overseas arrivals in the city were previously required to serve a mandatory quarantine in designated hotels. At one point, the city had among the world's longest quarantine periods at 21 days of mandatory isolation.

Incoming travellers now only need to present a negative COVID-19 result from a rapid antigen test conducted 24 hours before their flight.

The tournament is not all the way back. Capacity at the 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium is being capped at 85 per cent.

Hong Kong marks the start of an 11-stop men's season that wraps up May 20-21 in London. This season marks two events in Hong Kong, with the second a combined men's and women's event starting March 31 following the March 3-5 stop in Vancouver. which will feature men and women for the first time.

Australia arrives in Hong Kong as defending World Series champion while Fiji looks to make it six straight titles in Hong Kong. Uruguay make its series debut.

Canada hopes to improve on a disappointing 2022 campaign that saw a new-look team, rebuilding after a slew of retirements following the Tokyo Olympics, finish 14th overall.

“Last season, as a group we felt that we weren't as sharp in our game management around the opportunities we created. It's definitely an area we're looking to improve upon," said Canada coach Henry Paul, a three-time winner playing for England at Hong Kong.

"There is plenty of growth and development still to come within our squad … We know how tough our oppositions will be in pool play and we respect them immensely. We can’t wait to get out on the pitch and play our hearts out for Canada."

Canada wraps up Pool D play Saturday against Ireland and Kenya with the top two teams advancing to the quarterfinals.

Argentina finished fourth in last season's standings after winning in Vancouver, finishing runner-up in Malaga, Spain, and third in three other events. Ireland, which qualified for the World Series on its last outing in Hong Kong in 2019, was fifth and Kenya 14th.

The top four finishers in the 2023 Series secure 2024 Olympic qualification. The remaining teams will have to win their way to Paris through regional qualifiers.

Australia will play in Pool A alongside New Zealand, Samoa and host Hong Kong, an invitational team. Uruguay joins Commonwealth Games champion South Africa, France, and Britain in Pool B.

Fiji, the Rugby World Cup Sevens champion, is in Pool C with the U.S., Spain and Japan.

Phil Berna continues as Canada captain with veteran support from Jake Thiel. Alex Russell, Josiah Morra and Brock Webster, Canada's top three try-scorers from last season, also return.

Kal Sager, from Peterborough, Ont., joins the squad from Rugby Canada’s Pacific Pride developmental program.

Morra, Russell, D’Shawn Bowen and David Richard all were part of 15s coach Kingsley Jones' squad for last month's Americas Rugby Trophy in Brazil.

The seven-stop women’s World Series kicks off Dec. 2 in Dubai.


Canada Roster

Anton Ngongo, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers; Jake Thiel, Victoria, James Bay AA; D’Shawn Bowen, Toronto, Pacific Pride; Phil Berna (capt.), Vancouver, Vancouver Rowing Club; Alex Russell, Chichester, England, McGill University; Josiah Morra, Toronto, Castaway Wanderers/Toronto Saracens; Brock Webster, Uxbridge, Ont., Oshawa Vikings RFC; Elias Ergas, Vancouver, UBC; David Richard, Milton, Ont., Mississauga Blues RFC; Matthew Oworu, Calgary, Pacific Pride; Thomas Isherwood, Okotoks, Alta., Foothills Lions RFC; Kal Sager, Peterborough, Ont., Peterborough Pagans/Trent University; Lachlan Kratz, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers/NOLA Gold (MLR).

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press