Hong Kong, Kenya, Portugal and the USA have arrived in Dubai for a two-week trip they hope will prove to be a stop-over en route to Rugby World Cup 2023.
The four teams will take to The Sevens Stadium pitch on Sunday as the round-robin RWC 2023 Final Qualification Tournament, which will run until 18 November, gets underway.
At the end of the three match days in the UAE, the team on top of the standings will claim the 20th and final ticket to France.
But which teams head into the Final Qualification Tournament on form and who has the most Rugby World Cup pedigree? We give you the lowdown on each of the competing nations.
RUGBY WORLD CUP PEDIGREE
Hong Kong’s attempts to make it to a Rugby World Cup date back to the 1995 tournament but so far they have been unsuccessful in getting over the line and booking their place at the game’s showpiece event.
More often than not it was Japan, the dominant team in Asia, who blocked their progress in the early years, although it was a defeat to Chinese Taipei that cost them dearly in the RWC 2003 qualifying campaign.
For RWC 2015, Hong Kong’s interest came to an end in the repechage when they lost to Uruguay, while in 2019, they fell short in what was by now a round-robin event, finishing second-from-last in the four-team tournament in Marseilles.
Like Hong Kong, the first tournament Kenya attempted to qualify for was RWC 1995, however, defeats to Zimbabwe and Namibia ended their hopes before a win against the Arabian Gulf.
The Simbas have entered qualifying for each Rugby World Cup since but are yet to progress to the showpiece tournament itself.
Kenya came close to qualifying for RWC 2015, putting themselves in a good position by beating Namibia only for defeat to Zimbabwe to ensure they missed out on both a ticket to England and a place in the repechage on points difference.
Four years later, defeat to Namibia in their final qualifier denied them direct qualification for RWC 2019. They had done enough to make the repechage but lost all three matches in Marseille, against Canada, Hong Kong and Germany.
Portugal’s one and only Rugby World Cup appearance to date came in 2007 when the tournament was last held in France.
Back then, Os Lobos left it until the last possible moment to qualify with a narrow aggregate victory over Uruguay.
Os Lobos were beaten 18-12 by their South American hosts in the second leg of their repechage clash in Montevideo but thanks to their 12-5 victory over Los Teros in the first leg in Lisbon they claimed a 24-23 overall victory.
The result avenged a heavy defeat the previous time Portugal met Uruguay in the Repechage back in 1999.
As a reward, Portugal took their place in Pool C at the tournament proper with matches against New Zealand, Scotland, Italy and Romania.
Cheered on by a large Portuguese contingent in St Etienne, Portugal began their campaign with a 56-10 defeat to Scotland, winger Pedro Cabral scoring their first-ever Rugby World Cup try.
A 108-13 loss to New Zealand in their second fixture could have derailed a less spirited team, but Os Lobos finished the tournament strongly with a respectable 31-5 defeat to Italy and then in a close-run encounter against Romania, the Oaks took the game 14-10 but only after scoring two converted tries in the final quarter.
Portugal finished their inaugural Rugby World Cup appearance beaten in every game but not bowed, achieving their target of scoring at least one try in every match.
USA head into the Final Qualification Tournament with the most Rugby World Cup pedigree of any of the competing teams, having competed in every tournament bar RWC 1995.
Their Rugby World Cup debut came on 24 May, 1987, at Ballymore in Brisbane, Australia, when they held off a late comeback to beat Japan 21-18.
Defeats to Australia and England followed and they would have to wait 16 years to register their second tournament win.
Following winless pool phase exits at RWC 1991 and RWC 1999, that victory arrived when the tournament returned to Australia in 2003. Japan again provided the opposition as the USA ran in five tries to win 39-26 at Central Coast Stadium.
USA have only won one Rugby World Cup match since that night in Gosford, a 13-6 defeat of Russia at RWC 2011, again in the southern hemisphere, Mike Petri scoring the only try of the match.
Qualification for the quarter-finals has so far proved elusive for the USA on the biggest stage but they did come close to securing a fourth tournament victory on their most recent Rugby World Cup outing.
In their final Pool C match at RWC 2019, a brace of tries from Mike Te’o gave the Eagles a 12-7 half-time lead against Tonga in Hanazono.
However, Tonga outscored the USA three tries to one in the second half to secure a 31-19 victory and condemn their opponents to a fifth winless Rugby World Cup campaign.
WORLD RANKINGS SINCE LAST RUGBY WORLD CUP
Hong Kong have managed to climb two places in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini despite only playing four tests since Japan 2019.
Back in November 2019, Hong Kong were ranked in 24th place with 59.65 points, but they are now two places and 1.38 points better off in 22nd (61.03 points).
A place in the world's top 20 is within Hong Kong's reach if they pull of a shock victory in their first encounter at the Final Qualification Tournament against Portugal
Kenya have only played seven tests since the last Rugby World Cup, winning four, but have slipped one place in the rankings.
The Simbas were ranked 32nd at the beginning of November 2019, with 52.55 points, and three years later find themselves 33rd with 52.06.
This weekend, Kenya stand to gain as many as five places if they win their first meeting with USA.
In what is perceived as a period of success for Portugal, it comes as no surprise that the current Rugby World Cup cycle has brought gains for Os Lobos in the rankings.
While a one-place rise to 20th does not sound much by way of momentum, the increase in rating score from 61.34 to 65.08 tells you all you need to know about the direction they are heading in.
Looking to the weekend, Portugal will replace USA in 19th if they beat Hong Kong, irrespective of how the Eagles fare in their opening match against lower-ranked Kenya.
The past three years have been a transitional period for the USA and that is highlighted in the rankings, in which the team has slipped slightly.
At the end of RWC 2019, the Eagles were ranked 17th with 68.10 points and they have since fallen two places to 19th, losing almost three rating points to head into the Final Qualification Tournament with 65.17.
USA could slip further in the rankings this weekend as they are unable to boost their score against Kenya due to the 13.11 points difference between the two nations.
Hong Kong go into the Final Qualification Tournament with precious little test rugby behind them.
Since the last Rugby World Cup finished, Hong Kong have only taken to the field four times, winning two and losing two of those matches.
A European tour at the back end of 2019 gave Hong Kong some new experiences as they played Belgium and Spain away for the first time
A 36-17 win in Brussels was followed by a 29-7 defeat to Los Leones but the team appeared to be heading in an upward trajectory until COVID-19 hit.
Hong Kong’s 15s test rugby was put on hold for two-and-a-half years due to travel restrictions and then reduced in status from full-time to part-time programme because of the financial repercussions of the global pandemic.
But when Hong Kong returned, they returned in style, beating Korea 23-21 in Incheon with a last-minute penalty kick. That secured Hong Kong a place in the Asia-Pacific Qualifier and the chance of winning a direct ticket to France 2023.
The game against Tonga was played on neutral ground in Australia and the ‘Ikale Tahi prevailed, as most people expected them to, 44-22.
However, for a side that had so little preparation time behind them under a new head coach, Hong Kong’s performance, particularly in the latter stages of the match, gives them cause for confidence and something to work on heading into the Final Qualification Tournament.
Kenya head into the Final Qualification Tournament in relatively good form, having only lost twice – both times to Namibia – in their last six matches.
Due to the impact of the pandemic, the Simbas did not take to the pitch between September 2019 and July 2021.
When they did return to the field, to begin their RWC 2023 qualifying campaign, Kenya suffered an agonising 20-19 defeat at the hands of Senegal, conceding the match-winning converted try in the final play.
Kenya recovered to get their qualifying campaign back on track with a 45-8 win against Zambia and ended the year with a training camp in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
While there, the Simbas took on both Namibia and Brazil, and led their African rivals 24-19 at half-time of their first match only to lose 60-24 as their opponents ran in seven tries after the break.
Again, the Simbas recovered and six days later, ran in five tries to edge a 66-point thriller, beating Brazil 36-30 at Markötter Stadium.
During July’s Rugby Africa Cup 2022 in France, Kenya beat Uganda and Algeria to set up a winner takes all match against Namibia. However, the Simbas’ hopes of securing direct qualification to RWC 2023 were ended by a 36-0 defeat in Aix-en-Provence.
Portugal made it to Dubai after finishing third in the combined 2021 and 202 Rugby Europe Championship tables.
The second half of the qualification campaign began on a high with Os Lobos ending Georgia’s 20-match winning streak in the competition thanks to a 25-25 draw in Tbilisi; however, results – if not performances – tailed off as the year went on.
A crucial 37-27 defeat to Romania in Bucharest was a setback to their automatic qualification hopes but a meeting with the struggling Netherlands got them back on track, Os Lobos winning 59-3.
Then came the run of four defeats leading into the Final Qualification Tournament, albeit three were by slender margins to higher-ranked teams.
Spain ensured what had been a largely positive Rugby Europe Championship campaign ended on a low note for Portugal with a 33-28 victory in Madrid.
Portugal then hosted an Italian side on a high from their Six Nations victory over Wales and again only just came out on the wrong side of the scoreline, losing 38-31.
A 52-35 defeat to an Argentina XV followed but only after the South Americans overturned a half-time deficit.
And in their last outing in Kutaisi in July, Portugal made their hosts Georgia work hard for a 23-14 win.
Had it not been for Santiago Videla’s late penalty in Glendale, the USA would already be through to RWC 2023 and preparing for matches against England, Japan, Argentina and Samoa in Pool D.
They had seemingly done the hard work by winning a rain-soaked first leg of their Americas 2 play-off against Chile 22-21 in Santiago and led heading into the final 10 minutes of the second.
But sport is a matter of fine margins and in truth the USA’s form since RWC 2019 has been patchy at best.
The team returned to action in July 2021 with heavy defeats to England and Ireland but kept their quest for a ticket to France on track with a 59-50 aggregate win against old rivals Canada.
Victory set up a two-legged Americas 1 play-off against Uruguay, but despite winning 19-16 at home they were beaten 34-15 in Montevideo to lose the tie 50-34 on aggregate.
A 104-14 defeat to the All Blacks in Washington followed before a 26-21 win against the French Barbarians in Houston provided Eagles fans with hope.
That was extinguished with a swing of Videla’s boot at Infinity Park and the USA now head to Dubai having won only three of their nine tests since Japan.