Rugby sevens: New Zealand prove standing as the masters of sevens
Fiji beaten by bitter rivals as bad-tempered final makes a mockery of 'Friendly Games' sobriquet
Monday 05 August 2002
New Zealand dominate seven-a-side rugby the way that Lance Armstrong lords it over cycling, Tiger Woods bestrides the world of golf and Ian Thorpe rules water like a modern Poseidon clad in daft goggles and size 14 flip-flops. Entirely predictably, the silver-ferned world champions won Commonwealth gold for the second time in as many attempts, overcoming Fiji, their most bitter rivals, in a final every bit as predictable in the badness of its blood. The Friendly Games? Go tell it to the moon.
The Fijians finished with five players rather than seven: Saisi Fuli was sent off by Stuart Dickinson, the Australian Test referee, for pole-axing the brilliant Brad Fleming with a tackle bordering on the posthumous, while Jope Tuikabe was sin-binned after the final whistle for punching, which presumably means he must sit out the first two minutes of the 2006 Games. Tuikabe's little outburst forced Dickinson into recalling the combatants for one last phase of play, which allowed Roger Randle to extend the favourites' advantage to 33-15. It is hard enough playing sevens with seven. Two men short makes life just about impossible.
Eric Rush, the 37-year-old New Zealand captain who missed the final because of a rib injury – "I didn't want to be the guy that missed the tackle that cost us the tournament, so I decided not to chance it" – thought Fuli was a trifle unfortunate to see red for his assault on Fleming, and in truth, the tackle would have been perfectly legitimate had the recipient been in possession of the ball at the time of impact. But these two teams have what is euphemistically termed a "history", and there would have been real fun and games had Fuli been permitted to continue.
This emphatic victory may signal the end of the New Zealand-Fiji hegemony. Fiji played their best rugby of the tournament in the final – faced by the best side in the world, they did not so much move up a gear as swap their pushbike for a 500cc road monster – and, in Waisale Serevi, they possessed a player of unique vision, a leader equipped with the mixture of wit and imperturbability that separates the very finest practitioners of the sporting art from the great mass of humanity. But Serevi is nowhere near as quick on his feet as he once was, and in the aftermath, he pointedly refused to commit to performing in next season's World Sevens Series.
Without him, Fiji are likely to go quiet for a while. South Africa, bronze medallists here, are now the ones with New Zealand in their sights – George Muller, Jean de Villiers, Egon Seconds and the disturbingly rapid Fabian Juries made enough big statements at the Games to form their own parliament – and with England and Australia also on the rise, a new order is beginning to emerge. The Wallabies were involved in the match of the tournament, a stupendous quarter-final with Samoa that ended with the gifted Julian Huxley hitting both posts with a conversion that would have sent the tie into overtime and, on another day, they might have challenged hard for the gold.
Huxley's agony was shared by every last member of the squad, however, and they fell apart against a motivated England in the final of the Plate competition. (There was a Bowl event too, and, if sevens grows much more, there will soon have to be saucer and egg cup awards to go with the three existing pieces of crockery). The England team blew hot and cold throughout the three days, reverting to safety-first type in a tight quarter-final with Fiji on Saturday night – they preferred to kicked for touch rather than back themselves against the islanders' big-hit tackling – before entering into the true spirit of the short game against the Australians.
Phil Greening, the chrome-domed hooker from Wasps, played a captain's knock in the Plate final, scoring two of England's six tries. Eighteen hours previously, his spirits had been at gutter level; his wild throw to an important defensive line-out had led directly to Fiji's winning try, scored by Rupeni Caucaunibuca and converted, crucially, by Serevi. "I just wanted to go home," Greening admitted yesterday. "From thinking and believing that we could have beaten the Fijians – I still think and believe it now, of course – I suddenly felt that I'd had enough of rugby. But the banter at breakfast was good, and we all wanted to repay the coaching team for their efforts. So we went out in good heart, with the pressure off. We were after gold, obviously, but sticking 30 points on the Aussies is not so bad when you weight it up."
England may not possess the heavy artillery found in every area of the New Zealand team: sevens specialists of the calibre of Fleming, Craig de Goldi, Craig Newby and Rodney So'Oialo are not found in great numbers, and their coach, the wizened old maestro Gordon Tietjens, has them between the shafts all year round. But the Paul Sampsons and Josh Lewseys of the red rose parish are as quick and direct as most, and if Jason Robinson, James Simpson-Daniel and James Forrester are drafted in when needs must, the next World Cup Sevens in 2005 will be a legitimate target.
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