Commonwealth Games: South Africa win rugby 7s

South Africa celebrate after defeating New Zealand. Picture: Ian Rutherford
South Africa celebrate after defeating New Zealand. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT MAY not have been the final that the majority of the crowd wanted but Ibrox hosted the final that this compelling competition deserved with the best two teams in world sevens slogging it out like a couple of prize fighters on the famous old football field.

The stand was packed with the great and the good, Lord Coe, Sir Ming Campbell and IRB boss Bernard Lapasset amongst them; everyone wanted a seat at Ibrox.

Those lucky enough to bag one witnessed a magnificent final and the end of an era with New Zealand losing a game of sevens for the first time in five Commonwealth Games and 30 matches. South Africa’s cause was not helped by losing their skipper Kyle Brown to injury in the early exchanges. The Kiwis weren’t helped by losing Bryce Heem to the sin bin in the first half.

Ben Stowers opened the scoring for New Zealand, Seabelo Senatla responded for the BlitzBokke against a six-man defence at the end of the first half and the same player scored against the full complement of Kiwis at the start of the second. It was only appropriate that Cecil Afrika, the heartbeat of this South African side, scored the decisive try from the halfway line using turnover ball. Joe Webber grabbed one back for New Zealand but a knock-on let South Africa off the hook and that strange new sensation that the Kiwis experienced was the rare taste of defeat.

In truth a few cracks had already appeared in the New Zealand’s imposing super-structure earlier in the contest. Not only did Scotland push them close in the pool stages on Saturday but yesterday afternoon Kenya were trailing by just 12-7 late in the second half. The Kenyans had their chances but couldn’t convert and they needlessly kicked away possession. The Kiwis are nothing if not ruthless. They had one opportunity to score and Ben Lam made no mistake, carving his way through some tired legs to make the game safe.

After surviving that scare the Kiwis saw off their trans-Tasmin neighbours in the semi-final. Even below their best the Blacks were too good for the gold shirted Australians, scoring three tries to one in a match that was a lot closer than the final score suggested. The best match of the tournament had already come and gone in the quarter-finals when Wales shrugged off Saturday’s lethargy and raced into a 19-0 lead against Australia. Gareth Davies kicked two conversions but hit the post with the third which was to prove costly. The Aussies worked their way back into contention with one try in the first half and another after the break.

When the final hooter signalled 14 minutes was up the Australians were deep inside their own half and trailing by five points. They kept the ball alive and slowly worked their way up-field helped by Welsh indiscipline. Eventually Pama Fou broke Welsh resistance and hearts several minutes after full-time with a well taken try under the posts after the Welsh dragons simply ran out of puff. Cameron Clark made no mistake with the conversion from point-blank range.

England enjoyed a ding dong battle with Samoa in the third of the quarters but their hopes were not helped when James Rodwell was sent to the sin bin for a late challenge on Samoan try-scorer Samoa Toloa. The hooter had gone but Samoa tapped the resulting penalty on the half-way line and the same man scampered over in the opposite corner to rub salt in Rodwell’s wounds. Lio Lolo then scored the try of the tournament in the second half when he touched down, turned turtle in mid-air after a challenge by Philip Burgess sent him flying in a very literal sense.

The Samoans were not so acrobatic or so fortunate against South Africa in the semi-final after the quickest team in the tournament had earlier showed Scotland the exit with a stunning combination of power and pace in the last of the quarter-finals. The Africans scored five tries to two to end Scotland’s medal hopes and they brushed past Samoa in the semi-final by 35-7 despite the islanders drawing first blood but were helped when Samoa also drew the first two yellow cards in short order.

When all the totting up had finished Sri Lanka were popular winners of the shield, Canada beat the Cook Islands to claim the bowl and, after Scotland’s interest was ended at the semi-final, England edged Wales with a last-gasp try to win the second tier plate. Australia beat Samoa in the bronze medal playoff.

Lapasset and Brett Gosper, chairman and chief executive of the IRB respectively, were interested spectators all weekend with one eye on Rio 2016 when sevens enters the Olympics with 12 teams of men and women. As things stand rugby is guaranteed just two appearances, Rio and Tokyo in 2020, but a good showing in Brazil could see sevens adopted as a core Olympic sport. “We don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” as Gosper put it.

The IRB need good showings at all sevens events to impress the International Olympic Committee and while they expressed delight at the Ibrox crowds, which they dubbed “crazy, fantastic”, they were presumably a little less taken by the turnout at Scotstoun a few months back for the IRB’s own event.

The venues/dates for the next round of the IRB sevens series will be announced in October. Scotland are guaranteed one more event (in 2015) before any changes but the poor attendance at Scotstoun may see Glasgow lose the IRB’s franchise to a newcomer like Vancouver. If Glasgow does hold onto the IRB franchise the city and the SRU will have the undiluted enthusiasm of the Ibrox crowd this weekend to thank.