Samoa clinch historic first World Series
By Nigel Starmer-Smith
The 11th season of the IRB Sevens World Series dawned with the announcement in Copenhagen by the IOC of the inclusion of Rugby Sevens, for men and women, in the Olympic Games in Rio, in 2016.
I'm sure that it was not by chance that the thrill which followed this news of Olympic status coincided with a truly exhilarating Series, and increased competitiveness at all levels across the Rugby Sevens world.
Seven nations contested one or more of the tournament finals, with four different winners, and once again the overall champion of the IRB Sevens World Series was not decided until the Cup semi finals on the very last day of the final tournament, at Murrayfield.
Samoa, who had competed in every World Series event since the first one in Dubai in 1999, finally realised their dream - in their 92nd appearance – by becoming IRB Sevens champions. No wonder that the celebrations back home among the 180,000 population lasted for many more days than the officially granted national holiday!
New Zealand off to a flyer
The season began ominously, New Zealand seemingly set to brush aside all comers and swiftly make amends for their previous title-less season. In the traditional opening event in Dubai the experienced core of Gordon Tietjens’ squad steadied the ship against inspired Kenya and then swept past Fiji and Samoa to take the title.
There was little to suggest that the 24-12 win over Samoa would be their only win over the eventual champions, but by the end of the season New Zealand had only lost seven games - and six of those defeats were at the hands of the islanders!
But in George, at the Emirates Airline South Africa Sevens, there were no such problems to impede New Zealand’s continued advance on their way to a second winning final. They needed all their resilience and discipline to edge past England by just three points and then Kenya - again as in Dubai by 17-14 – but the final was more comfortable, 21-12 over Fiji. More heartening still was the performance of a brilliant 23-year-old Sherwin Stowers from Counties Manakau – a new star in the firmament, scoring 15 tries in the opening two events.
Pacific Islands strike back
It was from this point on that New Zealand ran into the buffers, in the shape of the Samoans, who blocked their path as they came home to their own spectacular Wellington event. Not that Samoa were to recapture the glory days of their first-ever Sevens title in 2007. It was to be the turn of their closest Pacific rivals Fiji to thrill the crowd in their one truly supreme tournament performance in a season marred not just by cyclone worries back home, but in rugby terms the loss of brilliant talents like Vucago, Roko and Kolonisau to fifteens, through injury Cakau and Lutumailagi and personal matters that beset Naba and Ryder.
All-in-all a difficult season for coach Iliesa Tanivula. It saddens me that we are unlikely to witness again especially the sparkle and instinctive Sevens genius that William Ryder brought to the game. He helped Fiji on this occasion to their Cup Final win in Wellington 2010, with victory over Samoa 19-14, but he never recaptured the supreme heights his rare talent attained when scoring a hat-trick in the Wellington Cup Final four years earlier.
From Wellington to the bright lights of Las Vegas, staging the USA Sevens for the first time. It was fun, it was different and the crowd rolled in. And it was here that Samoa's three-title sequence began, adapting to the conditions with their tight game-avoiding kicks, using short contestable restarts, moving away from physical contact and relying on the outstanding duo of the season Alafoti Fa'osiliva, a mobile powerhouse, and the ultimate 'finsher' Mikaele Pesamino, later to be named as the IRB Player of the Year for scoring 56 tries, almost twice as many as anyone else. Not forgetting the outstanding influence of captain Lolo Lui and the fortuitous return to the Sevens fold of Uale Mai. Samoa's win over New Zealand in Wellington's semi-final was to be followed up by a 33-12 romp when they next met, in the Vegas Final itself.
Australia a renewed force in Sevens
But new challenges were emerging from all corners of the globe. First came Australia, who had never made a Cup Final since 2002, and now with six teenagers and an average age of 21 were creating waves under the guidance of Michael O’Connor. In Bradman's Adelaide Oval they enjoyed the lion’s share of support but didn’t quite fire and it was instead Samoa - unchanged in personnel – who stuck to their Vegas winning formula. And yet again there were surprises - not Australia this time but the USA, making their first ever Cup Final in World Series rugby.
Hong Kong was Samoa's chance to take the overall lead for the first time in the race for the champion's title. And what a contest unfolded as the four previous HK winners - Fiji, New Zealand, Samoa and England - battled through to the Cup semi-finals. The Final itself was equally enthralling and for the fifth time in a row Samoa had the last word over New Zealand, 24-21, and a lead of just three tournament points over New Zealand heading to Europe and the season climax in London and Edinburgh.
For South Africa, the reigning IRB Sevens World Series champions, it had thus far been a frustrating season. Renfred Dazel and former captains Kyle Brown, Mzwandile Stick and Neil Powell had all been sidelined, and even at the final events new young stars Sampie Mastriet and Branco du Preez were whisked away into the Junior Springbok squad. But on this occasion, at Twickenham, Stick and Powell were back in the Springbok squad and so too Fabian Juries after a two-year absence playing Super 14. And 'Fab' he proved still to be, alongside the superb Frankie Horne and new star Cecil Afrika. A first Cup Final of the season, but this time it was against Australia.
A ruthless, newly-confident Australia ran rings around England in the opening pool round, James Stannard running the show, before making their first final for eight years against the South Africans. And Michael O'Connor's young Wallabies kept their composure and flair enough to celebrate a Cup for the first time since February 2002 at Ballymore in Brisbane.
Samoa underline champion credentials
One week later the champions title still remained to be decided between Samoa and New Zealand. Seven points ahead, Samoa knew their target for guaranteed success was a place in the Cup Final at Murrayfield. They certainly wavered in the Pool round as Argentina, maybe inspired by the farewell appearance of Sevens legend Santiago Gomez-Cora, beat them with ease.
Finals day was different though - what a climax! Samoa comfortable and clinical in victory over South Africa; New Zealand easy winners over Argentina, and then a game to cap the season as England, having lost to Canada the previous day, produced a performance against Samoa which showed their true potential and capabilities. A riveting spectacle was locked all square at 12-all at the end of normal time.
In fact, it was Samoa’s coolness under immense pressure that created the winning drop-goal chance in extra-time, scored appropriately by captain Lolo Lui. The Overall IRB Sevens World Series title was theirs!
Samoa also crowned it gloriously, turning the Final against Australia into a virtual exhibition of their outstanding talents - and amazing fitness levels! A season of highlights.
There was also the tearful farewell in Edinburgh of Argentina's Santiago Gomez-Cora, the top try-scorer of all time with 270 to his eternal credit. An end of an era, too, with the retirement of Springbok Marius Schoeman who did so much to bring Springbok Sevens to new heights. And, on a happier note, there was the broad grin as Scotland coach Stevie Gemmell saluted his boys at the final whistle when winning the Murrayfield Plate on his final IRB Sevens outing.
And then there was the live on-air marriage proposal by USA captain Kevin Swiryn to his long time girlfriend. Fortunately for Kevin she said yes! And where better to pop the question than Las Vegas! What a year, what memories – here’s to the next!