An action-packed year for women’s international sevens begins in Dubai this weekend with the start of the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024.
Over the course of the next four months, 12 teams will be battling not only for silverware but for a top four finish that keeps the dream of playing in HSBC SVNS 2025 alive.
The @worldrugby #HSBC Sevens Challenger kicks off this Friday at @thesevensstadium 🙌🏉— The Sevens Stadium (@SevensStadium) January 8, 2024
24 teams will be competing for a spot in the @svnsseries!
It’s free entry, so come & support your teams with matches kicking off at 11:30am 👌#thesevensstadium #sevenschallenger #rugby7s pic.twitter.com/h519w7JTng
Dubai is the first of three tournaments that make up Challenger 2024 with the top four teams at the end of the series competing with the bottom four teams in HSBC SVNS 2024 at a standalone promotion/relegation tournament from 31 May-2 June.
After this weekend, Montevideo (8-10 March) and Krakow (18-19 May) will be the next stops on a journey that teams will hope lead to the Grand Final in Madrid.
The third iteration of the Challenger series features five teams who have competed in every event since it was first played in 2022 in China, Poland, Belgium, Papua New Guinea and Mexico.
Uganda, meanwhile, are the only Challenger debutants. The Lady Cranes Sevens will be led by Peace Lekuru, who will be assisted by her vice-captain Agnes Nakuya.
China among the favourites
China are the most successful Challenger team in history, winning 14 of their 18 games to date and finishing in the bronze medal position in each of the last two years.
The Asian Games 2023 champions will spearhead the Far East challenge, although Hong Kong China, now coached by former England Sevens international Andy Vilk, and Thailand will be dangerous opponents, too.
Even though Vilk has only been in the job for less than four months, he is well aware of China’s strengths having faced them on the Asia Rugby Sevens Series and at the Asian Games and the Asia regional qualification tournament for the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
“We have played them a lot last season and they are a strong side. In Asia, China and Japan are the two teams we are trying to close the gap with, so I can certainly see why they would be considered one of the favourites here.”
China are drawn with Czechia, Kenya and Mexico in Pool B.
One the attractions of sevens, as Vilk knows only too well from his days as an elite player and coach of Italy’s men’s team, is its unpredictability. And his message to fans is to expect the unexpected over the three days of competition.
“An exciting part of it is that you have probably got a few unknowns. While you get the footage and you do your analysis, in our case on Poland, Paraguay and Argentina (in Pool C), until you get to the tournament and see what players they have brought, there is an element of the unknown. I am sure someone will surprise us this weekend.”
Hong Kong China have the honour of kicking off proceedings when they take on Paraguay in the first match of Challenger 2024.
Both previous meetings were in Stellenbosch last year and ended in one-score wins for Hong Kong China.
Stepping up a level
Having coached Hong Kong China women to their first-ever Asian Games medal (bronze) last year, Vilk is looking forward to seeing his team maintain their forward momentum throughout Challenger 2024 and into the World Rugby Sevens Repechage for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 in Monaco in June.
“The girls have earnt the right to have these experiences this year and the majority of them have played in the Challenger Series in Stellenbosch earlier last year, and I think any time you get to step up another level, it’s exciting. It’s a bridge between our continental championship (the Asia Rugby Sevens Series) and the World Series (SVNS),” he said.
“I think the big thing is you know every team is at that (high) level. Potentially where there are games where you might think about rotating your team, here you need to be hitting your game, every game,.”
Looking at the leading European challengers, Belgium came up just short in each of last year’s two tournaments in Stellenbosch, missing out on promotion to SVNS 2024 after losing both finals to host nation South Africa.
This followed on from a sixth-place finish when the inaugural Challenger series was held in Chile and the side coached by Emiel Vermote are in good shape for this tournament.
“We are ready, we have prepared well, and there is a sense of control combined with humbleness, that I am really confident in us being in a top four position at the end of the competition,” said the former Belgium men’s sevens captain.
Poland have the pedigree
Victories over the likes of France and Scotland en route to winning Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Championship 2022 highlighted the calibre of Poland and they have maintained high standards since then.
Poland won the Challenger silver medal that year and came fourth in last year’s event before going onto reach the final of the European Games, on home turf in Krakow the following month.
They were well beaten by Great Britain in the final, losing 33-0, but they are capable of inflicting similarly damaging scorelines on the opposition and hold the record for the biggest Challenger win in history: 71-0 against Papua New Guinea in Chile in 2022.
“We are really excited because we have been waiting for a few years to qualify for the World Series so I hope that now it is the time for us. Our hopes are to qualify for the World Series and also the Olympic Games from the final qualifier event in Monaco," said Poland captain Natalia Pamieta.
Argentina make up the three-strong Americas contingent along with Mexico and Paraguay, one of their opponents in Pool C.
Las Yaguaretés became South American sevens women’s champions for the first time in October with a 20-12 win over Brazil, becoming the first team to beat them in the tournament’s history.
Having lifted that trophy, captain Paula Pedroso is hungry for more success. “We were able to complete a very successful 2023 and we want to continue writing our own story for 2024,” she said.
“The goal for this year is, obviously, to aim for the highest level, which is to qualify for the World Series (SVNS), and focus on the Final Olympic Qualifying tournament, which is another great challenge we have this year.”