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RUGBY MAKES ITS GAMES DEBUT

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 11 1998 (Bernama):

By Ian Telford and Muammar Kamarudin

Rugby - the game they claim is played in heaven - could make a devilish Commonwealth Games debut marked by ritual slaughter here tomorrow.

Wales seems likely to be the hapless victim on the chopping block simply because it has the misfortune to meet the reigning world champion, Fiji, in the opening match of the three-day, seven-a-side rugby tournament.

The Fijians, the game's undisputed Maginificent Seven, are so confident of winning the inaugural gold medal that anything less would justify a day of national mourning back home.

But there's virtually no chance of the talented but outgunned Welshmen taking the points unless the Fijian team gets lost on the way to the Petaling Jaya Stadium.

The supremely althletic and skilful Pacific islanders have dominated Sevens rugby for more than a decade and theres's nothing to suggest that they are likely to relinquish their grip.

"We are here to show everyone we mean business by winning the gold medal -- no two ways about it," Fiji's coach Rupeni Ravonu declared earlier this week after his team had demolished England in a trial match.

And he'll be anxious to hammer home the message -- for the benefit of main rivals New Zealand, South Africa and Australia -- with an impressive first-up performance tomorrow.

Fiji's main weapon is its captain Serevi, arguably the finest sevens player in the world -- a brilliant strategist and an elusive runner who is almost impossible to contain.

The well drilled Kiwis, fuelled by their rocket-powered giant Jonah Lomu, are expected to pose the greatest threat to the Fijians. The New Zealanders, besides boasting multi-talented fullback Christian Cullen, are super fit and an eight-day camp in Singapore has acclimatised them to the heat and humidity.

But no one can afford to underestimate the South Africans, an emerging force in Sevens rugby which has assembled an impressive squad capable of mixing it with the best.

Although Australia has the legendary David Campese at the helm, its relatively young side appears to lack sufficient all-round experience at the highest level to challenge for the top prize.

The last minute withdrawl of Gambia and Zimbabwe from the tournament forced the organisers into a redraw. With the entry list reduced to 18 teams, the competition has been changed from a five-pool, four team format to six pools of three teams.

Australia benefited most from the change as it was originally drawn in the same pool as Fiji, but now has a much easier first round mission against the Cook Islands and the Caymen Islands. Fiji has drawn Wales and Swaziland, New Zealand faces Malaysia and Sri Lanka while South Africa's first round opponents are Papua New Guinea and Trinidad and Tobago.

In the remaining two pools, Samoa is grouped with Canada and the Bahamas, while England's opponents are Tonga and Kenya. The young English squad might face a tough time against the more experienced Tonga, but its chances against Kenya is unpredictable.

After tomorrow's first round, there will be another redraw based on those results and following a second round-robin series, the top eight teams will battle it out in the finals. -- BERNAMA




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