The circus came to town as the HSBC Sevens World Series rolled up in Glasgow at the weekend with New Zealand confirming their overall supremacy, and Scotland their burgeoning promise, in the abbreviated game.
New Zealand won the Cup and a 50th tournament title, and will undoubtedly win the World Series when it is all wrapped up at the ninth and final tournament at Twickenham this weekend. When that happens it will be the 12th time New Zealand have been World Series champions. Only three other teams have ever won it, and none more than once.
Scotland, meanwhile, surprised many by reaching the Cup semi-final, losing to Canada in an agonisingly close game as both teams vied to reach the final of a World Series event for the first time in their history.
In the end Scotland had to settle for fourth place. It was Canada who made history, prevailing over the home side 10-7 after a first-half stalemate was broken with a try by Phil Mack, one of the tournament’s top points scorers, who converted it and kicked a rare penalty drop goal to put his side out of range as the clock ticked down. The penalty was critical because Scott Riddell did go under the posts for Scotland late in the game for what could, by then, only be a consolation try.
In a one-sided final, New Zealand ruthlessly dispatched Canada 54-7 running in eight tries to rack up the biggest winning margin since 2002. Fiji beat Scotland 17-10 in a tight match to take third place, despite Andrew Turnbull scoring his 150th World Series try.
But Scottish rugby can look to the team’s performance, and the all-round success of the tournament, as a big improvement that can finally put to rest persistent questions over Scotland’s status as a core country in the series after they have failed to make much of an impression in recent years.
Many of the teams competing under the auspices of the International Rugby Board over the last few days will be returning to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games Sevens at Ibrox in July, but few are forecasting anything other than an All Black whitewash as the men from New Zealand have, after all, won every gold medal in the sport that the Games have ever offered. But, at least Scotland and Canada are beginning to compete more effectively.
It has been a long and winding trail through Australia, Dubai, South Africa, Las Vegas, New Zealand, Japan and Hong Kong to reach the doorstep of Scotstoun stadium where a little of the contemporary success in the RaboDirect PRO12 league of sitting tenants Glasgow Warriors rubbed off on the Scottish players until that semi-final, the first they have contested since 2009.
Scotland may be perennially towards the bottom of the international Sevens rankings but they have had a decent season by their standards and now they have a clutch of new points to push them up the ranking.
They may not have seriously troubled the big boys before now but their modest achievements included reaching the last eight in Dubai in November, winning the Shield in South Africa, and the Bowl in Hong Kong last month.
So it was a pleasant upsetting of the odds for Scotland to win all three pool matches relatively easily and go on to reach the semi-final in front of a big and colourful crowd, encouraged to come along in fancy dress based on a circus theme, a concept stretched to the limit by some groups in the stands who came as inflatable Sumo wrestlers and various other indescribable characters.
Scotland entered the ring on the first day and proceeded to entertain by outplaying Australia. Their performance was helped by the inclusion of a trio of players drafted in from professional XV rugby – straight-running James Eddie, experienced Nick de Luca and hard-tackling Richie Vernon – who contributed greatly to three tries against the Aussies, four against the USA, and five against Spain.
The manner of victory was important too because there were no last-ditch scores to snatch a win against the run of play, nor indeed was there any danger of Scotland conceding defeat at the death as they ran up comfortable margins of 19-7, 26-0, and 33-12. Everything was calm and controlled. As coach Stephen Gemmel said after coming from behind for the win over Australia: “We wanted to put down a marker on what we are about as a team.”
So yesterday, the second day, the marker had been laid down and there were more tries to be scored, tackles to be made, and reputations to be burnished. New Zealand did what was expected by demolishing all opposition put in front of them. Scotland did a lot more than what was expected of them by soundly beating second-ranked South Africa in the quarter-final of the cup competition, only the third time in 15 years they have managed to do so.
The game against Canada, who topped their pool after drawing with England and then beating Kenya in the quarter-final, was a bit if an anti-climax which silenced the crowd and abruptly halted the unbeaten run but it still marked a step up in skills and standards and a reminder that Scotland, having invented the game of Sevens, have the potential to be pretty good at it.
The circus has left town now, packing up and heading south across the border and down to London for the last tournament. Already the dates have been set for next season. After the Commonwealth Games are out of the way, it all begins again on the Gold Coast of Australia in October.
Final: New Zealand 54 Canada 7
Semi: New Zealand 17 Fiji 14
Semi: Scotland 7 Canada 10
Quarter: Canada 14 Kenya 5
Quarter: Scotland 12 South Africa 7
Quarter: Fiji 14 England 12
Quarter: New Zealand 19 Australia 7
Third place: Scotland 10 Fiji 17
Final: England 26 Kenya 5
Semi: South Africa 7 Kenya 14
Semi: Australia 7 England 21
Final: France 20 Argentina 14
Semi: Spain 0 France 24
Semi: Samoa 12 Argentina 29
Quarter: France 21 Wales 7
Quarter: Spain 24 Portugal 14
Quarter: Argentina 35 Japan 7
Quarter: Samoa 31 USA 12
Final: Wales 29 Japan 12
Semi: Portugal 7 Wales 38
Semi: USA 14 Japan 19