After a three-year wait, the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens returned and the action and atmosphere inside the ground on day one did not disappoint.
As the first of 11 tournaments, Hong Kong is not only the launchpad for the men's HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023, but also for Olympic qualification, with the top four teams at the end of the season snapping up automatic tickets to Paris 2024.
Wanting to lay down a marker as defending Series champions, Australia ruthlessly put away Hong Kong in the final match of the day, but they weren’t the only side to impress.
Samoa’s 24-0 win over New Zealand, also in Pool A, marked them down as serious contenders, while Pacific rivals Fiji looked comfortable in their second home, as they began their bid for a sixth straight Hong Kong title by racking up a half-century of points against Japan.
France and South Africa top Pool B after wins over Great Britain and Uruguay respectively, USA edged out Spain to join Fiji at the top of Pool C and Argentina and Ireland both kicked off with wins in Pool D.
POOL A Samoa ended a five-match losing streak to New Zealand with a convincing 24-0 victory.
Brian Lima’s side bossed the game from start to finish but it took seven minutes for them to get in front, Melani Matavao sniping over from a five-metre scrum.
Vaa Apelu Maliko got their second from a quick tap penalty before Paul Scanlan pounced on another New Zealand handling mistake to add a third.
Moses Leo received a yellow card for his late challenge on Scanlon and Samoa capitalised on the one-man advantage to score a fourth through Steve Onosai.
“We have played New Zealand a few times and we hadn’t beaten them. For 11 of the boys it is their first Hong Kong tournament and they were looking forward to playing New Zealand. It’s a good start for the boys,” said Lima.
Australia had to wait until the last match of the day to begin their Series title defence against invitational team and hosts Hong Kong.
But they wasted no time in piling on the points with Dietrich Roache crossing twice inside the first three minutes.
There was no let-up thereafter with captain Nick Malouf adding his name to the scoresheet and Josh Turner helping himself to a double.
Hong Kong pressed hard to reward the partisan crowd for their support with a try, but it was Australia who rounded off the match with two more scores through Kye Oates and Henry Paterson.
POOL B Great Britain’s fifth World Series event and their first since the English, Welsh and Scottish teams officially came together began in disappointing fashion with a 34-0 defeat to a rampant France.
Les Bleus Sevens exposed Great Britain defensively and ruthlessly capitalised on any errors to score five unanswered tries. Three of them went to Aaron Grandidier, the former England academy winger.
“Credit to the team, the boys put me in open spaces and it is just my job to finish them off and luckily I could help the team to a victory,” he said.
Uruguay’s debut as a core team on the Series almost got off to a dream start but, unfortunately, Tomas Etcheverry, couldn’t hold onto a low-slung pass with the try-line in front of him.
Unlike last season, South Africa began the Series surprisingly sluggishly and only scored their first points with 30 seconds of the first half to go, Selvyn Davids dotting down to the relief of the 2022 Commonwealth Games gold medallists.
Shilton van Wyk added another before Roland Brown atoned for a blooper, when he dropped the ball over the line, with their third try taking the score to 21-0.
“It’s great to be back in Hong Kong, we knew they were going to come after us, they are not a bad side at all, no team is on the sevens circuit anymore, so it was a great effort from the boys to keep fighting until the end,” said Davids, who draws level with Paul Treu on 70 Series tries for the Blitzboks.
POOL C USA and Spain fought out the closest game of the day, the Men’s Sevens Eagles taking it 15-14 right thanks to a try at the death from Malacchi Esdale.
Both teams had scored two tries apiece up to that points but USA’s failure to convert either effort looked as though it would cost them dearly until Esdale slid over in the left corner with only 20 seconds left.
Defending five-time champions Fiji were stung by a first-minute score from Taisei Hayashi but that only served to fire up Ben Gollings' side who ran away with the contest, scoring nine tries.
Iowane Teba celebrated his Hong Kong debut with his first World Series hat-trick as Fiji sent out an emphatic message that they won’t be giving up the trophy lightly.
POOL D: Ireland kicked off the day with a 28-12 win over Kenya with the prolific Jordan Conroy showing he has lost no appetite for the try-line with a brace of tries.
Billy Odhiambo also crossed twice but tries from Niall Comerford and Jack Kelly either side of Conroy’s brace settled the game in Ireland’s favour.
Five of the previous seven meetings between Argentina and Canada since 2019 had been close, decided by a margin of seven points or less. But Los Pumas Sevens completely dominated the North Americans in this instance.
Building on last season when they were the top try-scoring team on the Series, Argentina came flying out of the blocks and were 26 points up at half-time without conceding any in reply.
Sandwiched between a Marcos Moneta double were tries from Luciano Gonzalez and Matías Osadczuk, while Agustin Fraga and Tomas Lizazu added two more after the break for a 36-0 win.
Play continues on Saturday with the completion of the pool stage, with match 16 – Australia v Samoa (KO 06:00 GMT) – already looking like one to savour.
“We saw their game in the dressing room beforehand so with that result, Samoa getting one up on the Kiwis, it is going to make this pool really interesting,” said Malouf.