The race to qualify for the men’s HSBC SVNS 2025 gets underway at The Sevens Stadium on Friday as 12 teams congregate on the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024 start line.
Dubai is the host of the first of three Challenger 2024 tournaments, with the men’s competition then moving on to Montevideo (8-10 March) and Munich (18-19 May).
The top four teams in the Challenger 2024 standings at the end of the third tournament in Germany will take their place in the new promotion-relegation play-off competition, alongside the bottom four teams from HSBC SVNS 2024, at the Grand Final in Madrid.
It means there is more to play for than ever as the fourth edition of the Challenger kicks off in Dubai, when Germany take on Uganda at 13:52 local time (GMT+4) on Friday.
2022 final rematch in Pool A
Pool A rivals Georgia and Uruguay will be the final teams to take to The Sevens Stadium pitch on day one in what is a repeat of the 2022 Challenger final.
Los Teros Sevens – who had been second in the inaugural standings before it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic – won that match 19-5 as tries from Felipe Etcheverry, Bautista Basso and Valentin Grille secured their passage to the World Series.
Six Uruguayan players, including captain Diego Ardao and try-scorer Basso, remain from that match while five also represented their country at Men's Rugby World Cup 2023. But despite equipping themselves well in last season’s World Series, they will be taking nothing for granted in Dubai.
Uruguay missed out on safety by a single point at the end of the 2023 series, and were then only denied a place in the World Rugby Sevens Series 2024 Play-off final on points difference.
“It is a very tough tournament, with very hard teams – Kenya, Japan, Tonga, Georgia is a very big team, Chile, Hong Kong [China],” Uruguay head coach Ivo Dugonjic said.
“They are all very tough teams that are going to challenge us as we try to return to the circuit.”
Since suffering SVNS disappointment, Uruguay have qualified for the Olympic Games for the first time and will therefore use Challenger 2024 as preparation for Paris 2024 as well as an opportunity to qualify for SVNS 2025.
“The goal is, of course, to finish in the top four of the Challenger Series and fight for the possibility of returning to the world series next year,” Dugonjic added.
“Since [the Pan American Games] we have been working very well, playing the Seven de la República in Paraná and training very well. The team is progressing and very confident.
“The team is doing very well, moving forward and it is a nice challenge we are facing.”
Whoever comes out on top between Uruguay and Georgia on Friday will have put themselves in a good position to do well in Dubai, with matches against Hong Kong China and Papua New Guinea to come.
Too close to call?
Pool B looks incredibly close to call as 2023 Challenger winners Tonga take on serial series core team Japan, Chile and Portugal.
Chile will be Tonga’s first opponents, at 14:36 local time on Friday, and Los Cóndores Sevens coach Joaquín Todeschini has been able to select a squad packed with experience. Four players set to appear in Dubai were also part of the Chile squad at Men’s RWC 2023.
Tonga reached the final of both legs last year, winning the first before losing the second to Belgium, results that were good enough to secure their place in the Sevens Series 2024 Play-off in London.
Tevita Tu’ifua’s side found the step up tough, though, losing to Canada, Kenya and Uruguay at Twickenham.
That experience won’t have dampened the squad’s determination to qualify for the promotion-relegation tournament in Madrid, however, and they will be keen to make a good start on Friday.
"While winning the 2023 Challenger was a proud moment, we see it as motivation, not added pressure. Our focus remains on continuos improvement and disciplined execution," Tu’ifua said.
"Starting well in Dubai is vital as it sets the tone for the entire series. Our preparation emphasises a strong start to build momentum and ensure a competitive performance throughout the tournament."
Japan endured a disappointing 2023 series campaign, finishing higher than 14th only once across a season that ended in automatic relegation.
Simon Amor’s side have proved in the past, however, that they are a match for any team and they will want to show that once again in Dubai.
Japan begin their Challenger 2024 campaign against Portugal, a team that will hope they can emulate their 15s counterparts, who gained an army of fans through their exploits at RWC 2023.
And Portugal won’t have far to look for inspiration given their squad in Dubai includes the experienced José Lima, who lined up at centre against Wales and in the historic victory against Fiji in France.
Kenya, Germany possess pedigree
Kenya’s bid to return to the series at the first time of asking will kick-off at 14:14 local time on Friday when they take on Mexico at The Sevens Stadium.
The Shujaa’s 24-year association with the series came to an end – temporarily at least – in London last May as they suffered an agonising defeat to Canada in the final of the World Rugby Sevens Series 2024 Play-off.
Co-captain Tony Omondi and his team-mates have reason to be confident ahead of Challenger 2024, however, having secured Olympic qualification at the expense of South Africa in Harare in September.
Kenya’s try-scoring heroes from the Rugby Africa Men’s Sevens 2023 final against the Blitzboks, Patrick Odongo and John Okoth, have both been included in the squad in Dubai.
Following the match against Mexico, Kenya will take on neighbours Uganda – who finished third at the Rugby Africa Men’s Sevens – and European hopefuls Germany.
“We all know we fell short of playing in the series this year and the goal is to get back into the series,” Omondi said this week. “With the current crop of players, I believe that is possible.
“Preparations have gone well. We know that to have a shot at getting back on the series we have to finish in the top four and that is the motive.”
Germany have never finished outside of the top four in the standings in three previous appearances at the Challenger and reached the final of the first tournament on their way to third last season.
A similar performance over the next four months would be good enough to secure their place at the Grand Final in Madrid at the end of May.