As the Dubai Sevens kicks off this weekend, commentator and former player Nigel Starmer-Smith pre-empts the competition.
‘Believe me, there are no easy games left these days for anyone at the sevens tournament. It’s hard to predict who will even qualify for the Cup quarter-finals on day two, and there’s no way I’m going to predict anything – you choose! Happily it is truly wide open, like the spaces on The Sevens’ field, with some thrilling tries, match-saving tackles, skills and fitness levels to admire, and a whole lot of fun. No wonder I feel privileged to be a part of it.’
‘Without knowing the last-minute line-ups for the teams, the reigning overall champions of the last series, South Africa, have prepared meticulously at their permanent camp at Stellenbosch under coach Paul Treu and new captain Paul Delport, winning their warm-up event in Singapore. They’ll be strong, with Stick, Mbiyozo and Powell, and huge amounts of pace.’
‘Gordon Tietjens has long been the master of sevens coaching, and his New Zealand side will never accept second-best.’
‘The England team, under Ben Ryan, also have key specialists at their core – notably the shrewdest of players in Ben Gollings and Isoa Damu; the latter, if fully fit again, could become the tournament star. They’ll miss Ollie Phillips, on duty with Stade Français, but Christian Wade and Dan Norton are speedsters to watch out for.’
‘With additional expat interest in mind, Wales and Scotland have moved down the inevitable path to central contracts. Wales have been preparing in France under Paul John and, with players like Nicky Thomas, Craig Hill and Jevon Groves, the world champions will relish a return to the scene of their World Cup triumph in March.’
‘Scotland, with captain Scott Forrest, plus Mike Adamson and Colin Shaw signed up, are in real contention, too.’
‘A nation euphoric about the Olympic rugby decision – watch out for them, especially if William Ryder is back.’
‘Impressive in the recent Oceania event, Samoa still have Uale Mai to run the game.’
‘Argentina have rebuilding to do as their top sevens specialists are captured by European clubs, but there’s a guaranteed resilience in their playing style.’
‘They rank as the real dark horses, with a young squad who’ve gained experience. With Willie Bishop, the two Foleys and some exciting Super 14 academy players, they look destined to make their mark before long.’
‘Don’t discount the enthusiastic Eagles, featuring big Bokhoven, Gillenwater and co, as the team benefit from their new-found Olympic training facilities.’
‘Newly confident, reputation-breakers and wonderful athletes, Kenya are freshly disciplined in defence, awesome on attack, well-coached and well-led by Humphrey Kayange, plus they have star finisher Collins Injera.’
And the rest…
‘Add into the mix Olympic-motivated Russia, clever sevens practitioners Portugal, the great runners in Zimbabwe’s squad, and newly-vitalised, unpredictable France. That leaves Arabian Gulf, who are set to surprise perhaps even themselves under the new, effective regime of Kiwi Shane Thornton.’
The grudge matches
‘There was a time when the big clash was always New Zealand versus Fiji – one or the other nearly always won the event. In the first IRB series, each won five of the 10 tournaments. They’re still the keenest of rivals, and brilliant exponents of the sport, but the net has now spread so much wider and no one has enjoyed that kind of domination in recent years – nor, I guess, will they ever again, such is the glorious uncertainty these days. But there is a special, almost tribal, rivalry and intensity when Fiji meet Samoa, just as there will always be the matter of bragging rights when England play Wales or Scotland, or, dare I say it, when anybody plays Australia!’
Last year, we predicted that the women’s inaugural participation in the IRB World Cup, held in Dubai last March, may finally twist the International Olympic Committee’s arm into turning rugby sevens into an Olympic Sport. Guess what, we were right! Here’s what Nigel has to say about Dubai’s involvement in the decision.
‘Those of us who have long treasured the whole concept of seven-a-side rugby, as players or, later, spectators, have always been quick to salute the legacy of the founder of the game. Adam ‘Ned’ Haig, an assistant butcher from Scotland, took the inspirational, yet pragmatic, decision in 1885 to play a game of rugby with just seven players to each team. But the fact that 131 years later sevens is now to be included in the Olympic Games in Rio, and is already a significant part of every major continental sporting event (including the Commonwealth and World Games, the Asian Games and the Pan-American and African Games), owes much to many others, not least to the group of expats in Dubai who established the first Dubai Sevens in 1969. Over the next 30 years the event transformed itself into a global centre of the game, so it was the obvious venue in October 1999 for the inaugural IRB Sevens tournament.
‘The soaring attendance, the presentation, the expansion of participation at so many levels and the quality of performance all culminated in the staging of the men’s and women’s World Cup tournaments earlier this year that so impressed the delegates of the International Olympic Committee. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Dubai Sevens has been a key ingredient in bringing sevens rugby into the Olympic arena.’
Only Here for the Weekend?
Before Breakfast: Monty’s Rowing School (050 738 0910). Feeling energetic? Learn how to row on Dubai Creek from 5am. Dhs120 per lesson. All abilities welcome.
Somewhere: to Chill Jumeirah Beach Park (04 349 2555). There’s no better place for a bit of sunbathing – for just Dhs5. Expect crowds.
After-Hours Stodge: Al Mallah, Al Diyafah Street (04 398 4723). For Dhs6, the cheese bread will change your life. This is no underestimation.