Flying Fiji simply first class
Hong Kong might have picked a new chief executive yesterday, but it was favourites Fiji who ruled the roost in the city after defeating New Zealand in a gripping Cup final at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens last night.
It was a high-scoring classic, with Fiji emerging 38-25 winners. They never looked in any danger of losing, forcing New Zealand to play catch-up rugby.
'They [New Zealand] just came to play, but for us it was more than just a final. We really wanted it. We were hungry, we were determined,' said an emotional Fiji coach, Alifereti Dere. 'This victory is for the people back home.'
You could sense the charged sentiment bubbling inside the Fijian squad as they lined up for the national anthem.
Almost all the players had tears steaming down their faces as 'God Bless Fiji' was sung by a tuxedo-and-gowned foursome.
The Hong Kong Sevens was the first tournament on the HSBC Sevens World Series which played national anthems before the final. The organisers know how to put on a show, how to stoke the passions of the players. And, like gladiators, Fiji responded in the only way they know.
In the opening minutes they ran in two tries, the first a classic throwback to the glory days when passes were conjured out of thin air. Skipper Setefano Cakau, who used to play with the famous Waisale Serevi, had taken to heart Dere's words before the tournament that he wanted to play in that magical Pacific island style.
Cakau flipped a backhand pass behind his back to Waisea Nayacalevu and the first of Fiji's five tries were on the board. Everyone from the James Bond lookalikes to the group depicting the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, danced in delight.
'That start was the difference between the two sides,' said defeated coach Gordon Tietjens. 'They were more explosive and we were always playing catch-up. I have not seen Fiji play like this for a long time.'
When Dere was appointed national sevens coach last November, he said structured rugby was not meant for the free-flowing Fijians and wanted to take the game back to the days when running, instinctual rugby was the norm. He wanted the old flamboyance to return.
No wonder Tietjens was surprised. And now worried as Fiji cut New Zealand's lead at the top of the world series standings from five points to two (111-109). Luckily for the Kiwis, this weekend's tournament had been restructured by the International Rugby Board to bring Hong Kong in line with the rest of the legs in terms of points awarded - otherwise they would be heading for next weekend's Tokyo leg trailing Fiji.
Hong Kong had previously offered more points, but with the tournament being split down the middle this year - in order to unearth the three new core teams who will join the circuit next season - parity was enforced with the other eight legs.
Fiji will not care about all that. What mattered was winning the most prestigious sevens event in the world, and the US$100,000 in prize money.
'Our countrymen have suffered a lot recently. We've had floods in the western parts of the islands and this win will bring some smiles back to the faces of those people,' said Dere after Fiji notched up title number 13 - 11 Hong Kong Sevens and two World Cup triumphs in 1997 and 2005.
New Zealand did not give up without a fight - it's in their blood, as they showed in the semi-final against South Africa.
A brace from Mark Jackman levelled the scores at 14-14 at half-time, but Fiji began the second half in the same way they started the game and this time inspirational scrum-half Nikola Matawalu was the architect, creating a try for captain Cakau with a chip-and-chase, and then scoring himself as they surged 28-14 ahead.
To make matters worse, first-half hero Jackman was sin-binned leaving the Kiwis with six men, but as so often happens in adversity, they responded with Bryce Heem pulling a try back to cut the deficit to 28-21.
With less than a minute to go in the 20-minute final, though, Nayacalevu sealed victory with a 50-metre burst through the heart of the New Zealand defence.
Fiji's path to the final was an emphatic 26-7 win over Argentina before they held off a tough challenge from an error-prone England, winning 14-7 in the semi-finals.
England coach Ben Ryan was crushed. 'We had plenty of opportunities and possession, but we just didn't take our chances. We made a few mistakes, missed a couple of tackles and they cost us,' said Ryan who is still seeking his first victory as coach of England in Hong Kong.
And it got worse for him in the third-place play-off, when his team were hammered 28-0 nil by South Africa.
It was the 12th time New Zealand and Fiji had met in the Cup final in Hong Kong, with Fiji celebrating again along with Canada, Spain and Portugal after establishing themselves as the three new core teams in the world series next season.
Watch our video coverage of the Sevens at http://vimeo.com/scmp