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Rugby World Cup Sevens memories: 1997

June 15
10:49 2013
Digicel Fiji 7s rep Vereniki Goneva during training on Thursday. Photo: RONALD KUMAR

Digicel Fiji 7s rep Vereniki Goneva during training on Thursday. Photo: RONALD KUMAR

Source: IRB

Nigel Starmer-Smith and Waisale Serevi reflect on the second Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament, played in 1997 and won by Fiji.
Four years on from England’s victory at the maiden tournament, the world of 7s had moved on – at least in Hong Kong, where the acclaimed event had become virtually an annual world championship.
So when the second Rugby World Cup came to Hong Kong in March 1997, soon-to-depart Governor Chris Patten said it was as if the game was returning to its modern home and what followed was another wonderful rugby celebration.
On the field 24 teams from an enlarged qualifying entry of 67 nations contested the finals, with the Cook Islands, Morocco, Zimbabwe and Portugal the newcomers.
The old order was restored, though, as Fiji and New Zealand raised the standard once again. New Zealand, who had won all three Hong Kong titles since the first RWC 7s, had appointed Gordon Tietjens as their coach and he had unveiled an 18-year-old who was ultimately to become the best-known rugby name on the planet. Jonah Lomu had arrived, and with him Eric Rush, Glen Osborne and 20-year-old Christian Cullen. The Kiwis looked invincible.
But winning the Hong Kong 7s title is one thing; winning the Melrose Cup is another. This time England, comprised largely of their squad from 1993, were never in the hunt. The game had moved on and all the home unions, packed with top 15-a-side players, were brushed aside. But the real surprise was the dismissal of the favourites by South Africa. No doubt the absence of Lomu, struck down with a rare kidney disorder, took its toll as the Springboks, with van der Westhuizen, Skinstad, Paulse and Rossouw in full flight, crushed them 31-7 in the semis.
Fiji had been the sleeping giant of late but any team with the little maestro Serevi at the helm could only be an ever-present danger.
The final was one of those unforgettable matches. South Africa scored two early tries to be 14-0 up and sailing home. Or so it seemed. Once in gear, it was Fiji irrepressible, swiftly, magically creating four tries and 24 points in a stunning comeback.
There was a riposte from South Africa but not enough and a 24-21 score line sent the Melrose Cup to the South Sea Islands for Sevens Heaven and a decreed national holiday.

1997: Serevi
on Fiji’s first
Melrose Cup

“Sevens is part of every Fijian rugby player’s life and the Rugby World Cup Sevens means a lot to me and the people of Fiji.
“In 1997 we went to the second Sevens World Cup in Hong Kong and I remember getting into the airport with our little bags and all the other teams had their big bags and all their equipment. We were like little school children with our little bags, but we went in and we went there and it was great.
“We played well and then we played in the final against South Africa, who had won the Rugby World Cup in South Africa two years before in 1995 and were coming to Hong Kong with all their top players – van der Westhuizen, Skinstad, Venter and Rossouw – they really wanted to win the World Cup in Sevens too.
“I can remember warming up though and seeing all the crowd and one of the Fiji supporters had a sign saying ‘Take it home Fiji’ and said to the boys, ‘Look, you have to play like this is the last game of your lives and you’ll never play rugby again. This is an opportunity for you to get on the field and do something for your country.
“In the final they scored two tries and under the posts I said to the boys that we needed to get the ball, and we needed to score a try before half time. Then they lost the ball, we scored and came back into it and won.
“Afterwards I said to Joost van der Westhuizen ‘I know you won the World Cup and you wanted to win this one too, but we have to take it home to Fiji’. Winning that little Cup was huge for people in Fiji.”

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