All-South African finale a fitting end to yet another remarkable day of sevens rugby
THEY put on a show like no other at Melrose. On a weekend of glorious sport from Aintree to Augusta, the historic Greenyards was opened up again in wonderful sunshine to affirm its place on the world sporting map.
In what was the 127th anniversary of the first tournament, the increased field of Scottish teams ripped into the tournament to prove that sevens rugby remains an attractive, tough, exhilarating and skilful game to master, but one many aspire undoubtedly to, and more should.
But the South Africans of two rival cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, showed what kind of quality they would all like to reach in the tournament’s first all-South African final, blending the traditional sevens nuggets of a couple of hard-working forwards with two or three linking playmakers and out-and-out pacemen and lacing it all with speed and handling skills across a ten-man squad that no others in this tournament could quite match.
Yet, the rugby was just part of the continuing Greenyards story, and this year the club chose to toast the work of the many thousands of Scottish soldiers at home and abroad by dedicating the event to the Armed Forces.
That came with an invitation to ‘The Army in Scotland’ rugby team, combining the best of four infantry battalions just returned from Afghanistan, mostly Fijians who live for the release of sevens rugby. With them came troops from 1 Scots and 6 Scots (Borders Company) of The Royal Regiment of Scotland, who marched through Melrose and around the Greenyards pitch to take the salute from Major General David Shaw in front of the main stand, pipers and drums from Glasgow and the Golden Lions Parachute Display Team who descended in a blaze of colour from the skies with the final match ball in an incredible show between the semi-finals and final that evoked a raucous, standing ovation around the Borders ground.
Still, the central action surrounded the battles on the field of play, and there were plenty on Saturday to enthral a healthy crowd estimated at somewhere over 12,000. The reigning champions, the students of Francois Pienaar’s alma mater, the University of Johannesburg, were set up for a showdown with the newly-invited compatriots Hamilton, the oldest club in South Africa and reigning South African Club Champions from Seapoint in Cape Town.
But Selkirk and Melrose came agonisingly close to ruining their plans. The Souters had beaten a good Stirling County team and two tries from Lee Jones kept them in it against Jo’Burg in the quarter-finals, but in the final play of the tie Fraser Harkness and Rory Aglen set up Andrew Renwick but the big forward could not grasp the bouncing ball at the line and the chance to level the scores.
At the bottom end of the last eight, Melrose went even closer, James King and Jamie Murray pulling the hosts back into the tie with Hamilton and then Fraser Thomson racing 30 metres across field for a last-gasp ‘score’. The Greenyards roared its approval, but, ominously, the match officials went into a huddle.
Referee Cammy Rudkin consulted touch judge Colin Reavley, and declared the ball to have been held up; no try. Some Melrose supporters were still arguing well past midnight over how their fate had come to rest in the hands of two Borders officials, one from Hawick and another from Gala. No chance, clearly.
There had been a number of promising Scottish displays, from engrossing opening round ties in the tournament within a tournament to those punching for involvement in the latter rounds, particularly commendable considering few had had any time to practice sevens and the strength-sapping sun at the end of an elongated XVs seasons.
Kelso had great moments in beating entertaining Edinburgh Accies and Ayr sides before running out of steam against the powerful Army team, and Watsonians, the reigning ‘Kings of the Sevens’, looked good with Scotland back row Allister Hogg making his return to rugby after five months out. But Heriot’s were better and with Rory Hutton and Chris Fusaro pulling the strings they beat Cambridge University and Watsonians to become the only native club team in the last four.
Graham Wilson then shocked the Jo’burg students with the opening try in the semi-finals, but the South Africans hit back with four second-half scores to claim their final spot, while Hamilton cruised past a demoralised Army team for a 35-5 win in the other semi-final as the far-travelled guests began to hit their straps.
The final itself proved to be one of the best witnessed in years at Melrose for the quality of the rugby, slick passing in front of the man, building momentum, crunching tackling, feverish scrapping for ball and sublime running skills, even though the sides, meeting each other for the first time at any level, deployed similar tactics.
Hamilton bounced back from a 21-14 deficit at half-time with two well-worked tries by Gerhard ‘Silver Fox’ Voss and Jason de Villiers taking them cruising to the Ladies Centenary Cup. Disappointment was etched on the face of the shattered Jo’burg players, but the delight in their compatriots was evident in the way they greeted the final whistle by racing across the pitch and leaping into each others’ arms.
Two years older than Melrose RFC, Hamilton are a club, rather than a university, but use sevens to prepare for the XVs season, and their coach Anton Moolman revealed that they had had some help from the South African squad.
“I came here as a player with Villager in 1999 and lost to Gala in the final,” he recalled, “and it was always an ambition to come back as a coach, so I got in touch with Melrose when Hamilton won the South African club championship and was delighted when they responded with an invitation.
“But then you want to come and do well. We help out Paul Trew [South Africa sevens coach] because they practice in Cape Town and we had a few sessions with them before they went to Hong Kong, which helped sharpen our boys up for this. It has been a great experience for all of these guys, something they will always cherish, but it will be nice to come back and defend it also.”
One of his stars was Alshaun Bock, whose career with South Africa sevens was ended by successive knee operations. He may not see his record of 10.5 seconds for the 100m again, but he was still too quick for the rest on Saturday and finished the tournament’s top try-scorer with six scores and out-shined last year’s star Earl Lewis.
He revealed afterwards: “Earl and I are good friends. We both come from Wellington, near to Cape Town, and have known each other since we were very young, so it is nice to follow him here.
“I have played on the IRB world sevens circuit, in places like Hong Kong, but Melrose is special. I am 26 and international sevens is behind me now, and I never thought I would get the chance to play at Melrose, but to come here and to win the trophy is a dream come true. This has been an awesome week. I definitely want to come back next year. I would actually come back here and play XVs rugby in Scotland if anybody wanted me!”
He was not kidding – he left his telephone number – but his words encapsulated the awe in which Melrose Sevens is held. Scottish clubs and the SRU are working behind the scenes on a new season format that returns this part of the season to the abbreviated game and one would like to see the whole of the country embrace it as a way forward for Scottish rugby, in terms of player skills development and enjoyment, and to restore rugby’s social attraction.
The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will bring sevens at Ibrox Park and the Olympics of 2016 hail rugby’s return to its firmament. For it to be seen at its most glorious, community-binding, social best, however, no-one does it better than the many volunteers of Melrose RFC.
University of Johannesburg: K Jacobsz, E Marutlulle, D Badenhorst, J Swanepoel, L Waqa, JP Janse Van Rensburg, E Van Tonder, A McDonald, C De Klerk (capt0, E Lewis.
Hamilton: A Bock, J Du Plessis, J Rossouw, T Jacobs, J De Villiers, E Van Vuuren, J Williams, S Du Toit, F Prinsloo (capt), G Voss.
University of Johannesburg: Tries – Waqa 3, Badenhorst; Cons: Lewis 3.
Hamilton: Tries – Voss 2, Bock 2, J De Villiers; Cons – De Villiers 2, Jacobs 3.