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South Africa Eye Maiden Hong Kong Sevens Title

05/04/2017 12:24
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images

With just four rounds of the 10-stop HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series remaining, South Africa lead the pack by an astonishing distance and are well on course to add to the country's solitary title, achieved back in 2009. A maiden triumph at the Hong Kong Sevens - the most-coveted prize on the circuit - this weekend would provide the fillip to ensure the side complete the season as champions, surely.

Incredibly, so far this term Neil Powell's Blitzboks, stung by a rash of heartbreaking near misses in recent years, have reached every single tournament final; further, they have succeeded in four of them, and only lost twice all campaign. On both occasions, in Cape Town (a sucker-punch defeat on home soil) and Vancouver, on the most recent leg, their vanquishers were England.

Hitherto the South Africans have amassed a colossal 126 points, with the English trailing by 23 and Fiji, the reigning Sevens Series and Olympic champions, in third position on a century.

Can they be caught? Statistically, it is highly unlikely, though Powell, the 38-year-old former scrum-half who has been at the helm since 2013, won't want to leave anything to chance, with the horrors and bad-luck stories of recent history swirling in his mind.

The list of woe makes for painful reading, even if you are not South African. The Blitzboks have been runners-up in five of the previous six editions of the Sevens Series, including each of the last four (they were pipped to the line by New Zealand in 2013 and 2014, and then Fiji in the past two).

In addition, the team, many experts' favourites to win the gold medal in the inaugural Olympic competition last August, had to settle for bronze in Rio de Janeiro. They were cruelly felled in the semi-final 7-5 by Great Britain.

Even at the mecca of the sport, in Hong Kong - also the home of HSBC, and where the multinational bank's sponsorship of sevens began - fortune has failed to shine on South Africa. Ahead of the 42nd edition, the Blitzboks have never won, and, worse, lost out in the last two finals to New Zealand and then Fiji (who by comparison have reigned on 16 occasions, a record). Will they make it third time lucky in Hong Kong, one of the truly global tournaments on the series?

It would take a miracle to stop the Blitzboks' charge to the overall crown if they prevail at the legendary venue, finally, this weekend. And, if they do indeed succeed on Sunday, what a fitting reward it would be for Powell and his chargers who have had to pick themselves up and redouble their efforts repeatedly in their quest for ultimate glory. Moreover, it would represent a symbolic power shift, with Hong Kong effectively a home event for Fiji, winners in four of the last handful of tournaments.

The Blitzboks' domination in sevens is well timed for South Africa as a whole, as it coincides with a miserable run of form from the Test team. The South African Rugby Union is desperate for positive news stories, with the Springboks, World Cup winners in 1995 and 2007, currently sitting a lowly seventh in the latest rankings. Sevens has provided a much-welcomed distraction and reason to be cheerful.

Plus, with new tag-rugby initiatives introduced to attract hoards of youngsters to the sport, the interest in the game in South Africa and participation numbers remain on the up. And in the land where traditionally brawn trumps flair on the rugby pitch, December's Cape Town Sevens, the second of its kind, highlighted how the excitement and entertainment of the shorter version of the game capturing supporters' hearts and imaginations.

Over 100,000 fans attended the two-day tournament, deemed a hit by locals and visitors, players and pundits alike. Naturally, it would have been a bonus had Powell's side defended their title, but England edged them out 19-17 in a thrilling finale.

If South Africa clinch a first-ever title in Hong Kong this weekend, Powell's players will be convinced that destiny, for once, is with them and they can go on to claim the country's second Sevens Series crown. Achieve that, and all the heartache generated by a litany of disappointments would be immediately expunged.

Success will be a relief not just for the players and coaching staff but the country's legion of fans, too. With the Test side suffering an extended slump, the Blitzboks' arduous journey to the top of the world will be heartily celebrated by them, and also the wider rugby community. It would rightly be held up as an inspirational example of how determination and strength of character - two typical South African traits - have the power to overcome failure, and provides hope for a brighter future in the rugby-mad country, in all forms of the game.

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