Rugby: Fiji wins Hong Kong Sevens 2016 title


A flight delay turned into a happenstance encounter with several members of the Fiji national rugby sevens team at the Hong Kong International Airport.  It was during this time that I wondered aloud to one of the squad’s core team members, Isake Katonibau, where they had been able to train in his disaster-hit home country.

Katonibau became puzzled.  “In Fiji,” he said.

Pressing further, I asked about the specific venue and whether it had to be changed given the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston, the strongest ever to hit the country.  Katonibau remained confused.

At that moment, I recalled a word mentioned by Fiji head coach Ben Ryan earlier in the week: “resilient.”  Despite the incredible athletic gifts of his team, it was instead this trait Ryan spoke of several days before Fiji successfully defended its Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens championship.

“The boys lost houses, families lost livelihoods,” Ryan said at a press conference before the tournament.  “It’s not been a lucky time for Fiji, and the boys obviously have been affected on a personal level from that.

“But saying that,” Ryan added, “Fijians are incredibly resilient.  The boys are very much of, ‘Well, you know, we didn’t have much to start with and we’ll start again.’  They’ve not moaned about it, they’ve not complained about it and they certainly won’t use it as an excuse for any lack of preparation.”

Resilience, indeed.  The reigning champions were down by five points to Canada in pool play before staging a dramatic comeback with just two minutes to go, emerging victorious, 19-17.  They nearly lost to Kenya in the Cup quarterfinals, eking out a 12-10 win by scoring a try on the last play of the match.

Yet somehow, Team Fiji’s 21-7 victory over New Zealand in the Hong Kong Sevens Cup championship – a rematch of last year’s final – never seemed in doubt.  Upping the ante in their 34-5 semifinal crush of Australia, the Fijians’ lightning-quick ball movement and creative, uncanny ability to find openings to drill through for tries led to a record 16th Hong Kong Sevens title.  Aided by a ragged and injury-racked New Zealand squad, who endured two extra time periods to knock out South Africa 12-7 in the semifinals, Fiji connected on tries by Semi Kunatani (the HSBC Player of the Final), Jerry Tuwai and Kitione Taliga, with conversions for all three successfully taken by captain Osea Kolinisau.

The victory extended Fiji’s lead over New Zealand to five points in the standings of the HSBC Sevens World Series.  Although the All Blacks have won 12 of the last 16 titles, it’s Fiji who is the reigning Series champion – and are hoping to carry that momentum to the 2016 Olympic Games, where rugby sevens will make its debut on the international stage.

“If the Fiji sevens team, irrespective of the players selected, continue to develop and execute teamwork, there is no doubt in my mind that the Fiji sevens team will bring gold and glory to this nation come the 2016 Rio Olympics,” a member of the current national team declared less than a year ago.

The athlete – from a country that has never won an Olympic medal – who made that statement?  Katonibau himself, who at the end of our conversation was heading with Savenaca Rawaca and a couple other teammates not to this weekend’s inaugural Singapore Sevens, but back to Fiji.  To rest, Katonibau said, but also to rotate players in the team roster.

It’s not just about resilience, I realized after parting ways, but the Flying Fijians’ sheer depth of talent that led them to the Hong Kong Sevens 2016 title – and perhaps to eventually fulfill Katonibau’s prediction.

Additional Hong Kong Sevens 2016 results

South Africa bounced back from an agonizing double extra time loss to New Zealand to claim third place over Australia, 14-12.  South Africa has yet to win the Hong Kong Sevens.

If there was a “Most Improved Award” at the Hong Kong Sevens, the United States would be the deserving recipient given the leaps and bounds they have taken in the last two years, winning the 2015 London Sevens.  However, the Eagles – currently ranked fifth in the World Series standings – were blanked in the Plate final, 19-0, by England.

Also recording a shutout was Argentina, who are ranked just behind the United States.  They won the Bowl over Scotland, 26-0.

Last year’s qualification tournament winners, Russia, captured the Shield, 19-14, against Canada.

Photos: Fiji def. New Zealand, Hong Kong Sevens 2016 Cup final
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Video: Team Fiji sings after winning Hong Kong Sevens 2016
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine