The magnificent Sevens
Whether you’re there for the scrummaging or the socialising, Dubai’s annual rugby fiesta is one of the highlights of the UAE sporting calendar. This is the remarkable story of an event that showcases sport at its joyous best
For anyone who has experienced more than one Dubai Rugby Sevens, that is the way many a conversation could start. Meeting up with like minds and reminiscing about the good old days feels especially pertinent this weekend.
It is the 10-year anniversary of the region’s annual rugby celebration being played at The Sevens.
Those who can remember the old Exiles ground in Al Awir might get misty-eyed about the tournament as it was before the bulldozers moved in to make way for the Meydan project.
But, in what hardly feels like a decade since, the new venue has created more than a few memories.
Like that time in 2015 when Owen Farrell was here in a watching – and babysitting - brief, supporting father Andy playing for Joining Jack in the International Vets.
He managed to get through that whole weekend without creating any controversy over dropping the shoulder on anyone, no matter how many tackles Jack Johnson, the young boy in whose name the charity was created, went in for on the England fly-half.
Or that time, a year later, when Josh Lewsey – five years retired from a career that had brought him every major medal in the sport – celebrated his 40th birthday with a rare yellow card.
That happened while he was playing on an outside field in a social competition that ranks among the lower tiers of the 17 tournaments that run concurrently, alongside his two brothers and with his mum and dad watching.
This is the sort of fare that is the essence of the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Such memories are not, it’s fair to say, unique to the new venue. After all, back in 2006, the world’s best rugby player of the time Dan Carter was a water boy for an invitational side at the old Exiles ground. And Richie McCaw, Ali Williams and Mils Muliaina – each All Blacks of great renown – idled away the weekend along with everyone else in the scaffolding stands.
The tournament’s organisers were adamant the new venue would retain the same ambiance as the old one when the switch was made. The bulldozers moved in the day after the 2007 final was played. The organisers took their scaffolding with them and, with the paint still set on the dressing room walls, The Sevens played host to its first competition.
Initially, Gary Chapman, the president of Emirates Group Services and Dnata who oversaw the move and subsequent growth of the tournament, said it would move from the Exiles “over my dead body”. But the ground, as well as the Darjeeling Cricket Club and Dubai Country Club which neighboured it, were soon taken over by the rapid urban expansion of the city.
A facility fit to host the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens, approximately 22 kilometres from the old site, along the Dubai-Al Ain Road, was constructed within 423 days, on a tract of land that was formerly a camel farm.
When the first domestic matches were played at the site, while it was still just a patch of grass with no formal facilities around it, camels grazed freely on the single-track road that led in and out. The 2008 Sevens was the first major tournament held there, as a dress-rehearsal for the World Cup.
“The Exiles was the club at the end of the Creek,” said Sean Hurley, who was a member of the Arabian Gulf side who enjoyed home advantage at that 2009 World Cup, which was won by Wales. “When I think about it now, I used to think, ‘Oh my God, the Exiles is so far out of town’. Now everyone has become accustomed to going out The Sevens in the 11 years since the Exiles moved.
“At one end of the ground was the concrete stand that was there all year round, with the dressing rooms underneath where we used to change next to the international boys when we were playing with the Arabian Gulf.
“It was more intimate than it is now, but at the time I thought it was the biggest stadium I had ever played at in my whole life. Then they built The Sevens, and it grew it massively. The facilities are world-class, but there was still the same feel.
“I still drive past that area and wish it was there. It’s amazing that we used to think that was so far out of town.”
Few are better placed to comment on the transition between the two venues than Mike Friday, who will be back here as United States coach this weekend. In 1994, he was a player on what was then sand pitches in Dubai, and in 2004 he won the first of back-to-back titles as coach of England.
The Sevens stadium complex took 423 days to build.
“I love this place,” Friday said in 2014, celebrating his 20-year anniversary of coming to the event. “I’m disappointed the sand has gone, I used to enjoy playing on that. It is the tournament for rugby purists.
“I still remember the days when you would sit in the changing rooms with your England shirt on and you would be sat next to a vet who was having a fag. It was proper rugby and they have managed to keep that alive in Dubai.
“The social, vets and invitational tournaments are what make this weekend so special.”
A view of the main pitch - where the international teams do battle.
The legacy of the 2009 World Cup Sevens was a new headquarters for rugby in West Asia. Much has changed in the decade since. For example, there is no longer local representation in the main, World Series tournament at the Sevens. Indeed, the representative side has a different guise itself. The Arabian Gulf played on for two years, before the union was broken into its constituent parts, at the direction of World Rugby. The new UAE team played in one home sevens, then has not been back to feature in the main competition since.
The Sevens has a slightly altered perspective, too. Instead of being solely rugby orientated, it regularly plays host to a variety of other sports today, with hi-spec cricket ovals adjacent, while netball even features in the Sevens tournament programme, itself.
And, although the growth of Dubai means there are now other venues for rugby around the city, which were not available 10 years ago, The Sevens remains the sport’s hub in the Middle East.
“It’s a fantastic stadium and the facilities are second to none, in most of the southern hemisphere, I’d imagine,” said Graham Brown, the Dubai Hurricanes club captain, who was part of the winning side in the last Gulf Men’s League final to played at the old venue.
The finals for the lower tournaments also take place on the main pitch on Saturday.
“Jonathan Davies [the Wales great] was here recently, and he said the pitch at The Sevens is better than any he ever played on international. It is like a bowling green.
“We have struggled a bit with numbers, purely because other clubs have set up elsewhere in the city – the Eagles at Dubai Sports City and Dragons at Jebel Ali Shooting Club – because there were a lot of people in Dubai at the time and not everybody wanted to drive all the way out there.
“But we could not be anywhere else, given we have around 700 junior members, too, and The Sevens is wonderful.”
A decade of collisions... the premier men's competition honours board
Serevi gives van der Westhuizen a helping hand
If one image deserves to be seared into the annals of the Dubai Rugby Sevens, it is that of Waisale Serevi, surely the format’s greatest ever player, pushing the wheelchair-bound Joost van der Westhuizen through the guard of honour at the end of the 2013 International Veterans final.
It had been two years since the great former Springbok scrum-half had announced he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
A star-laden team representing the J9 Foundation that raised funds for research into the degenerative condition made it to the Pitch 1 final against Xodus Steelers. The fact they were beaten, after the buzzer, by a try scored by a former All Black, mattered little.
“I know I was in the right place at the right time, trying to help a great rugby player, a hero and a warrior who has done so much for his country and rugby,” Serevi said.
Two years later, Serevi led his team to the title, and was moved to tears when describing what it meant to him.
“I have never been so proud in my life as I am winning this for Joost,” Serevi said. “The side has been here for three years, and, having lost in the final twice, I am so happy. I have met Joost’s wish, to win this tournament for him.”
Van der Westhuizen died in February 2017, aged 45.
Speranza 22 do it for Marco
Speranza 22 players celebrate after winning the International Invitational. Rory Greene
Reaching a Pitch 1 final at the Dubai Rugby Sevens is often the highlight of a player’s career. Such was the case for Marco Speranza, who won the Gulf Under 19 final with Abu Dhabi Harlequins in 2009.
The highly-popular young winger died in an air crash in his native Argentina in February 2013. The mates he left behind set up a team in his honour, and vowed to reassemble together every year at the Sevens.
Last year, they paid a remarkable tribute to their mate by winning the International Invitational, the competition one tier down from the World Series. Put into context, they beat South Africa’s second string side in the final.
“I was thinking about my son, because he is not here, but his soul is in every one of the players, and in every one who has supported us,” Orlando Speranza, Marco’s father, said.
“This is a family. I cannot remember feeling this happy since I lost my son. This was his rugby club, and he was happy when he was here.”
Ignacio Costa, a close friend of Marco’s from their time together in Abu Dhabi, was proud of what they had achieved.
“This means the world to me,” Costa said. “I spoke about this with my brothers, and we said there is no team we would rather represent than Speranza.
"Playing for Marco and Orlando means everything to us, and we are overjoyed with this.”
Wales win the World Cup
The Sevens was originally constructed with a view to hosting the 2009 Sevens World Cup. It was a tournament that felt different in many ways to the annual World Series tournament.
Rather than on National Day weekend, it was staged in March. The main event stretched over three tournament days, rather than two as is conventional on the series. There was none of the colour that the Sevens is afforded by the invitational tournaments on the outside pitches.
And, on the field, results differed wildly from the norm, too. At the quarter-final stage, all was normal. Then Fiji, England, New Zealand and South Africa – the regular trophy winners – all bombed.
Wales, who had never been past the quarter-final stage, were the eventual winners, beating Argentina in the final, with Kenya and Samoa the losing semifinalists.
“I didn't expect to be sitting here,” Lee Beach, the Wales captain, said in his valedictory press conference.
The Dubai Rugby Sevens is the best place for a game of “random spot”.
“You’ll never guess who I’ve just seen ferrying water on Pitch 4 … Bradley Wiggins!” people might have been able to claim in 2012.
“Yeah, right, mate – you’ve obviously had too much sun,” was the likely riposte.
But he was, and he did carry the drinks for Joining Jack in the International Vets tournament.
Wiggins – just plain old Bradley back then, as it was before his knighthood – was fresh from winning the Tour de France and Olympic gold, and was a few days away from being named BBC’s Sports Personality of the year.
But there he was, providing refreshments for some old players in a social competition.
Not any old players, mind. Joining Jack are a charity side mostly made up of former rugby league greats, a sport which Wiggins is an avid fan of.
Extended Russian anthem proves lucky talisman
It was pretty obvious Russia were unlikely finalists in the 2015 Women’s World Series tournament, given that the organisers let their national anthem run through three times before realising it was time to switch it off.
Unfamiliarity with the big stage eventually cost the Russians, too, as they were comfortably beaten by Australia, who are regulars atop the Dubai podium. But they had done the job they had set out to do, namely get noticed and earn some respect.
They caught the attention of the sevens world when they thrashed New Zealand 33-7 on the opening day. Proof, were it needed, of the effect Olympic inclusion was having on transforming the landscape of sevens.
Russia might have a minimal pedigree for rugby, but the win over New Zealand showed they were here to take the game seriously, seeing as it was set to debut in the Rio Games at the end of that season.
“The team was very well prepared with minimal mistakes, but it was just the first game and we will continue to work hard and do our best,” Nadezhda Kudinova, Russia captain, said of the win over New Zealand.
Seven players to watch
1. Pio Tuwai (Fiji)
No side has been better to watch than Fiji in the past 10 years at The Sevens – and Tuwai, the towering forward with dexterous handling skills was a shining light.
“If you watch slow-mos, his head is up watching what everyone is doing, and his hands are doing something else,” Ben Ryan, who won the Dubai Sevens twice as Fiji coach, said of Tuwai.
2. Jerry Tuwai (Fiji)
Unrelated – by either blood, or playing style – to his namesake Pio, yet every bit as thrilling to watch.
The son of a fisherman, who learnt the game on a tiny roundabout in his settlement in Suva, he became an Olympic gold-medallist, and now the captain of the Fiji Sevens team.
3. Portia Woodman (New Zealand)
Woodman will miss this year’s Sevens having sustained an Achilles injury. It is quite a loss, seeing as she is arguably the greatest women’s sevens player of all.
A regular on the winners’ podium in Dubai, she was the World Rugby Women’s player of the year in 2017.
4. Collins Injera (Kenya)
Injera was once described as “poetry in motion” by Ryan for his graceful playing style. The fleet-footed wing has long been the darling of “Kenya Corner”, the informal name given to the area of The Sevens stadium where the country’s supporters mass.
His haul of 271 series career tries is bettered only by England’s Dan Norton.
5. Perry Baker (United States)
The United States flier became the first player from beyond sevens’ traditional heavyweight countries to earn the accolade of sevens world player of the year when he won it in 2017. Just for good measure, he repeated it this week.
He is good value for it. One of the best players to watch in any form of the game, and he has made the US regular challengers – and occasional trophy winners – on the world series.
6. Cecil Afrika (South Africa)
The Blitz Boks have won the Emirates International Trophy more times than any other side since it has been played at The Sevens. They have won four of the 10 tournaments at the venue, and Afrika has been their talisman throughout.
The South African playmaker is fifth on the all-time leading point-scorer charts on the World Sevens Series.
7. Evania Pelite (Australia)
Pelite was still only 22 when she was named player of the tournament as Australia won the women’s tournament last year – and yet it was five years since she had debuted for them.
“She is a world-class player,” Tim Walsh, Australia’s coach, said. “There is not really a skill that she can’t do, and that is what sevens is all about.”
Dubai Sevens 2018 coverage
Meet the Emirates Cabin crew aiming for Dubai Sevens glory
Complete guide to the tournament
Speranza 22 target more success at the Sevens
Dubai Exiles prepare to defend Dubai Rugby Sevens title
Follow Paul Radley on Twitter: @PaulRadley
South Africa seem happy with their efforts last year. Who knows what'll happen in 2018 though.
South Africa seem happy with their efforts last year. Who knows what'll happen in 2018 though.
Words: Paul Radley
Editor: Simon Wilgress-Pipe
Photo editor: Olive Obina
Graphics: Roy Cooper
Photographs: The National, Getty, AFP, Dubai Exiles
Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018