Kenya and China lead Challenger nations vying to smash glass ceiling

Joe Byrnes looks at the teams setting the early pace in the race for HSBC SVNS 2025 places after the first round of the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024 in Dubai.

Some 24 teams – 12 men’s and 12 women’s sides – kicked off the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024 in Dubai with one goal … to reach the promised land of HSBC SVNS 2025.

Three continents and a trilogy of tournaments will determine which of those 24 nations on show will have a shot at promotion to HSBC SVNS, with Uruguay and Krakow (women) or Munich (men) the pending battlegrounds now the Dubai opener is done and dusted.

The top four sides at the end of the three Challenger events will travel to the Grand Final in Madrid. There, they will play in a standalone tournament alongside the bottom four ranked sides from HSBC SVNS 2024. The drama will be like nothing we’ve ever known come 2 June, 2024.

Rugby has in its time fielded accusations of being a ‘closed shop’, but this is SVNS, rugby’s fun loving, progressive-minded upstart of a sibling – and its reimagined format means that never, ever before has there been more jeopardy.

Kenya have eyes on the prize

We may only be in January, and just two tournaments down but already the Madrid Grand Final looms large for those in the lower reaches of the men's HSBC SVNS 2024 standings. From Samoa to Spain, the bottom half of the table is separated by a slender six points and anyone who watched the Challenger last weekend, would have done so through anxious splayed fingers.

Weekend winners Kenya and 2022 Challenger champions Uruguay, who claimed third in Dubai, are obvious ones to watch. They pose threats everywhere and could topple any side on their day, given the right 14 minutes.

Chile, buoyed by silver at the Pan American Games and the good feeling Los Condorés have instilled in the nation, looked settled and stubborn in taking second. Germany, in fourth, have looked longingly at the SVNS party from the outside for some years. While they have been guilty of tactical inflexibility in the past, they looked precise in Dubai.

Across the last eight in Dubai, there are dangerous teams: 2023 Challenger champions Tonga rattled some established cages in the promotion play-off at Twickenham in May; Hong Kong China sealed the Cathay/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens shield with victory over Canada last season; while Georgia have a raw, unpredictable style that could unsettle any side down on their luck and straining under the weight of relegation threat. 

And then there’s Japan, perennial SVNS yo-yoers, coached by England and Great Britain great Simon Amor. They were underwhelming in Dubai but are laced with personnel who’ve done it on the biggest stage.

China: in their hands

Rivers don’t run quite so deep in the women’s competition, but the top of the pyramid shone brightly at the weekend.

China deserved their tournament win. They started with defeat to Kenya’s Lionesses but rallied to new heights with every subsequent match – scoring 189 points and conceding just 27, avenging that opening blip with victory over the same opposition in the final.

As for those Lionesses, their second place was roared on by a joyous and vociferous ‘Kenya Corner’. They, too, exacted revenge for a solitary pool loss with a thrilling quarter-final win over Czechia, but saved their best for the semi-finals when they dispatched the impressive Argentina. 

The final proved a game too far, but the Lionesses head to Uruguay purring, knowing they also have some big names to return.

Argentina’s Las Yaguaretés caught the eye en route to third place. They’ll look back ruefully on their inaccurate and flat semi-final exit but should take vast amounts of optimism from performances that blended skill, creativity and abrasiveness. They didn’t even qualify for the competition in 2023, but can already count Poland, Hong Kong China, Paraguay, Thailand and Uganda among the nations they reigned over.

Fourth-placed Uganda were the surprise package. They were another team to dump out a side in the knockouts – Belgium – who’d bested them in the pool stage. Honestly, you can’t question the Lady Cranes’ determination – although, fourth rather glosses over the fact they ultimately only claimed two wins from six all weekend.

Runners-up from the two previous Challengers, Belgium and Poland will feel they have more to offer in the coming months, while Thailand were physical and showed real cohesion and incisiveness in attack.

For the teams, every point counts, but for me the only thing I’m counting is the days to Montevideo and the second instalment of this gripping contest.

By Joe Byrnes