AT 10am on Friday, as the first tie in the World Cup Sevens kicks off,

it is expected that hundreds of people in a little Baltic country will

join together in the cry: ''Allez Latvia.'' The team who will open the

tournament against the mighty Fiji, and who are ranked No.24 in the

field of 24, will be bursting with national pride.

''For us this will be a very special moment,'' declared Andris Ozols,

president of the Latvian Rugby Federation. ''Our country has, since

independence in 1918, been occupied by the Russians, the Germans, and

the Soviets again. Playing rugby on the international stage is a way of

us stating our own identity.''

There is an ironic twist to the tale of Latvian rugby. It was in 1960

that a Latvian student, home on vacation from Moscow University,

appealed on the radio for potential players to come to a training

session; Mr Ozols was one of those who answered the call.

In the early days the away games were mainly within the Soviet Union.

VEF, the leading Latvian club side, competed in the USSR second


Only when the Soviet empire collapsed was Latvian rugby able to strike

out on its own. To qualify for the Murrayfield sevens, however, the new

kids on the block had to beat Russia, Georgia, and Lithuania in a

preliminary tournament in Moscow.

''Russia were strong favourites,'' Ozols told me. ''We had played only

in one major sevens tournament, the Midnight Sun event in Finland three

years ago; I remember the final took place in blazing light at 12

o'clock at night.''

Latvia beat Georgia and the Russians, the Lithuanians setting up the

decider. After having been behind twice, Latvia came through 12-10, with

captain Vladimirs Nikonovs, a tailor to trade, kicking the conversion

that ensures his place in the Hall of Fame.

Today there are nine clubs and 900 players in Latvia, nothing compared

to those participating in basketball or volleyball, but a growing

interest just the same.

Before the team left for Edinburgh they were received by the state

President, and the Minister of Education's message was: ''Rugby is a

good sport for building the character. The success of our national team

will lead more of our young people to the game to learn agility, great

endurance, and a strong striving to common goals and excellence.''

Sounds like a politician, all right.

The vice-president of the rugby federation, Maris Smits, put it

better: ''This is not just a tournament to us. It is a feast.''

They are a likable lot, the Latvians. Others may complain about the

weather -- they think it is great. They window-shop with intensity.

''Do you have any chance of winning a single game,'' I asked manager

Uldis Bautris? ''It is a bad soldier who does not want to be a

colonel,'' he replied, with a broad smile.

Yes, allez Latvia.

* MINNOWS 2. If you fancy the mug's double of all time, you could

couple Latvia with the Republic of China, otherwise known as Taiwan.

Their manager is Jason Lin, a PE teacher, who told me he had taken up

rugby when he was 15.

Students, returning from Japan in this instance, introduced the game

and there are now around 1000 Taiwan players. Like most of the Asian

sides they suffer from a lack of beef and inches -- winger Kuo-Cheng

Hwang may, as his manager declares, be very fast but, at just tipping 10

stones, he had better be.

But the Taiwanese are not novices; they have reached the semi-final of

the Hong Kong plate tournament and the final of the bowl in their time.

''Realistically, our best chance must come in the ties against

Argentina and Italy. Scotland and Australia will be too strong for us,''

insisted Lin. Ah, they all say that.

Rugby comes a long way behind baseball and basketball in Taiwan, but

the manager believes television coverage could bring about a big

increase in his numbers.

''When China takes over in Hong Kong, who knows what will happen?''

Who indeed, but Lin is one of the coaches going to spread the gospel of

the handling code in Peking this summer.

* THE Not-Too-Pleased Team of the Tournament . . . so far! Korea, or

as many of us know them, South Korea.

They were presented with splendid new track-suits for the tournament,

complete with Korean flag . . . only it was the North Korean flag.