New Zealand were dominant in both the mens and womens Rugby World Cup Sevens held in Moscow last month and take the trophies back to Auckland to sit alongside the William Web Ellis Cup won by New Zealand in 2011. It was some feat and once again the Kiwis have set the bar for others to better.
The IRB (International Rugby Board) took a risk by awarding the Rugby World Cup to Russia. Whilst the weather spoilt the final games as a spectacle the main challenge that the teams faced was the complete lack of atmosphere in the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, home to the 1980 Summer Olympic games. This vast cauldron can seat over 89,000 spectators and will likely be full for the IAAF World Athletics Championships being held there in August but when pictures are being beamed live all over the world and all you can see is vast empty seats then is does not exactly sell the sport.
Remember this is a sport that will make its Olympic debut in two years’ time and I am sure there will be some soul searching among some senior IRB and IOC officials as to whether the stadium will be full in Rio? I am sure that it it will be but the IRB has to understand that there is a fine balance to be struck in awarding its showpiece events to emerging markets and nations where support is minimal. It may be cruel to say but if Scotland is to continue to host one of the legs of the HSBC Sevens World Series then bigger crowds might be one of the determining factors in the future.
On the pitch victories are achieved at the highest echelons of the game by the finest of margins. One tackle, one slip, one fortuitous bounce of the ball is what can win matches but it is teamwork for me is the key factor to winning. Given that the abbreviated game is under the microscope means that player responsibility in the delivery of his or her skill set within the team is what sets the standard. However one deciding factor for the competing teams that no one could have forecast was the change in weather conditions during the final day of play.
Earlier in the week of the tournament temperatures in Moscow had tipped 34*C; the highest temperature ever recorded in June for over 100 years but that intense heat exploded in a crescendo of thunder and lightning during the opening semi-final between New Zealand and Fiji when both teams had to leave the field for a 90 minute break such was the intensity of the storm that erupted over the stadium and called into question player’s safety.
When the players returned to the pitch it was so saturated that slips and spills were inevitable but New Zealand’s command of the conditions and sheer teamwork saw them progress to the final by 17points to nil having squeezed the free flowing Fijians into a catalogue of errors. In the final, New Zealand’s opponents England appeared clueless. Their lack of tactical nous in the wet conditions was evident and with the final score line 33pts -0 to the All Blacks Sevens it was a real anticlimactic end to what should have been an epic culmination of 3 days of play.
Earlier in the day I had taken a break from my commentating duties to go pitch side and watch the quarter final tie between South Africa and Fiji. South Africa had knocked Scotland out the main cup competition 33-0 the previous day with a devastating display of sevens laced with pace, supreme support play and slickness of pass. I had wanted to see the intensity and sheer pace of the game from a players’ perspective, as South Africa were my outside bet for the title.
What I witnessed was as thrilling a tie as any in Moscow. One of the new stars of the South African team Cheslin Kolbe who had made his debut in Glasgow back in May showed brilliant footwork to put Subisiso Sithole in for the opening try and yet despite that early advantage the Fijians set about a game plan that put pressure on the contact area and the young Kolbe was not afforded the same amount of space to repeat his earlier brilliance.
To watch the teamwork employed by the Fijians in denying the South Africans space to employ their game was a master class. Fiji as we know are great handlers of the ball but their running and angles of support play saw them get back on level terms when Metuisela Talebula scored with 50seconds left on the clock. The conversion edged Fiji into a 2 point lead and with the tide turning you could see that Fiji had the slight edge.
The previous day a high tackle by South Africa’s Captain Kyle Brown on Scotland’s Michael Fedo had led to Brown receiving a 3 match ban for making contact with Fedo’s eye. Brown’s influence on the South African team was sorely missed in that semi-final match but as it turned out the small margins of victory was reflected in Fiji’s conversion that proved to be the difference between the teams. Fiji extended their lead with a second try by the electric Samisoni Veriveri but it was the way that they plotted their way up-field that impressed me.
South Africa forced Fiji to play wide by coming up in defence on the inside shoulder. The second a Fijian player stepped and straightened to hit that inside shoulder, South Africa would drive the tackle to the outside to try and deny Fiji the offload on the inside. The challenge in employing this tactic is that when you are faced with someone like Leone Nakawara who stands at 6feet 6 inches tall and 18stone 6inches [1.98metres and 117KGs] that inside pass is always on!
South Africa fought back to score with 40seconds left on the clock but rather than concentrate on converting the try from 20 meters left of the posts and put the tie into extra time, Cecil Afrika rushed the kick and missed. There was still time for a restart but Fiji claimed the ball and booted it out of play. What a tie. If Afrika had taken his time to convert then the tie would have gone to extra time. Again small margins win games.
In the other quarter finals of the draw prior to the downpour only one score separated England beating Australia (21-17) and Kenya despatching France (24-19). In the second semi-final following New Zealand win over Fiji, it was England who progressed to the final by seeing off the much fancied Kenyans 12 points to 5 in an extremely tight match.
By now the matches were being played in water polo type conditions as the rain continued to hammer down. Water tends to find its own level in sevens and it is apt in summing up Scotland’s performance at this RWC tournament that the level of performance was as good as expected. Wins were achieved over Japan (19-17) and Russia (21-5) in the group stages and whilst a draw or better could have seen Scotland qualify for the cup competition, the gulf in class between Scotland and South Africa was significant and reflected in that 33-0 score-line.
In the plate competition, Portugal could have been a banana skin for the Scots but Scotland played well enough to win a scrappy tie by 19-0. Any thoughts of silverware were blown out the window with Canada scoring 3 converted tries in the semi-final despite Scotland scoring first. It was a solid performance from the Scots but when you hit the pinnacle of sevens you want to exceed expectations.
Young Chris Dean did well as did the forward trio of Scott Riddell, Michael Fedo and Struan Dewar. The only other bright spot was that Scotland’s Andrew Turnbull became the 4th highest try scorer of all time in RWC 7s history having added 2 more to take his tally to 16 but if Scotland are to excite in the sevens game they need to find players of genuine class to follow in the footsteps of Turnbull and Scotland skipper, Colin Gregor. Then it’s all down to teamwork.