At around the same time as 15s rugby was plunging further into the abyss, South Africa’s sevens side was asserting itself as the new, true power of the game’s shortened format.
As the Springboks ended their autumn series on a low note in defeat to Wales in Cardiff, the Blitzbokke were blasting away the old guard of New Zealand in the Dubai Rugby Sevens final.
A 24-12 victory was far from commanding and New Zealand began their 2017/18 campaign with something they never attained last season – an appearance in a final.
But Neil Powell’s green army are well and truly on the march. And the head coach admits he wants his side to emulate what the All Blacks Sevens, the dominant force of sevens over the years, have achieved – even though he doubts such dominance can be repeated in the modern age.
“Obviously it is something that we would like to do and we have positioned ourselves well now among the best teams, but it’s going to be tough to be dominant for that long like New Zealand were in the past,” said Powell after South Africa retained their Dubai title with a 24-12 win over their Southern Hemisphere rivals.
“I don’t think you’ll get a team that dominates like New Zealand has in the past. I think you’ll get teams who will be successful for a year or two then there will be a change of the guard quite often in the future.
“It’s always going to be a challenge. Teams up there are competitive. England, Fiji, Australia had a fantastic tournament, New Zealand are in a building phase and are just going to get better.”
First-half tries from Rosko Specman, former World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Seabelo Senatla and HSBC Player of the Final Kwagga Smith put the rampant Blitzboks 19-0 up against New Zealand, who were chasing their first tournament win since Vancouver in 2016.
And they rallied in the second half, captain Scott Curry and Andrew Knewstubb got their side back into the match, but with their opponents threatening a superb comeback, Tim Agaba powered over to close the game out.
Smith has enjoyed a 2017 campaign to remember so far. He had a breakthrough year with the Lions, superb as the South African side reached the Super Rugby final against New Zealand’s Crusaders.
He was also named man of the match against the All Blacks in a 31-22 defeat a few weeks ago, dismantling the myth players can no longer switch between codes at the elite level.
“He’s a phenomenal player, phenomenal in both codes and I’m pleased we can have someone like that in our system,” Smith said if the 24-year-old.
“Hopefully we can hold onto him until the 2020 Olympics because I think a lot of clubs will be wanting to throw a bit of money at him.”
After expressing displeasure at the way his defending HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions began their defence in a lacklustre 19-10 victory over invitational side Uganda, Powell praised the way his side ended the weekend.
“I’m always worried coming into this tournament. I’m always worried about complacency from our team, but I have to give credit to the players,” said Powell, a former Blitzbokke player himself.
“Every time they put their jersey on their backs there’s a lot of pride and they want to make that green and gold jersey one of the best brands in the world.”
For New Zealand, they had to be content with silver, but having lost the lustre of previous years, they can be encouraged by reaching a final – last season their best placing was third, three times.
And captain Curry said his side will take comfort from a fine showing from a side that’s not been together very long.
“It’s exciting looking forward,” said the 29-year-old.
“We’ve only been together a couple of months so to go and push the best team in the world, we’re pretty pleased with that.”
His team banished the pain of 11 years without a trophy, but the pain Dubai Exiles’ Kris Hughes had been harbouring deep inside was far more raw and real as his emotions finally overcame him at the final whistle.
The Scotsman lost his dad suddenly to pneumonia in April, but paid the perfect tribute to his “biggest fan” yesterday as Exiles claimed the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens.
Exiles earned a thrilling come from behind victory against the Jebel Ali Dragons juggernaut that had steamrollered teams throughout the weekend. For 24-year-old Hughes it was justification for not jacking rugby in as he had felt like doing when receiving a phonecall seven months ago telling him the devastating news his dad Stephen had died after a short illness.
“I was due to fly back as a surprise for my family five days later so just missed out on seeing him, which was the worst part of it,” revealed Hughes, a personal trainer.
“It was heartbreaking. 12 hours later I was back in Scotland, I just grabbed the first flight there.
“It was sudden. I came home from work one day, the phone went in my flat and that’s when I got the news. There was no warning.
“It was bronchitis pneumonia, he’d been in hospital for a few days, which I didn’t know about. He started having breathing problems. He wasn’t in any pain, he went peacefully which is something I was thankful for.”
It’s often been said that the UAE rugby community is like your second family, and Hughes certainly needed his Exiles brothers for support after his dad’s death, which hit him harder being 3,000 miles away from home.
His immediate reaction was to take a break from playing rugby. But his coach at Exiles, Jacques Benade, persuaded him to stick around.
That encouragement and Hughes’ determination to keep going and honour his father paid off in the most perfect way yesterday and he felt like his father was there with him in spirit, in addition to the word ‘dad’ he has etched into the strapping on both wrists since his death.
“That took a lot of the drive to compete away from me because he was my biggest fan,” added Hughes, who actually only started playing rugby in his mid-teens after a career as a promising goalkeeper with Hibernian and Rangers stalled.
“We’d talk about everything after every game so I wasn’t sure if playing sport was going to feel right anymore.
“I was going to take a year out from rugby but Jacques convinced me to stay and play another year, and I’ve dedicated every game and every performance to him (dad) which is why I get my wrists strapped every game, for him.”
Hughes admitted to feeling emotional in the tunnel prior to the game and taking to the main Pitch 1 at The Sevens Stadium in front of thousands of raucous fans.
So a stomach-churning encounter in which they were faced with an early 12-0 deficit against fierce rivals Dragons was probably the last thing he needed.
Former Exiles player Matt Richards burst through to open the scoring after barely a minute and before they knew it Exiles were two tries down, Nick McCashin cashing in, and on the precipice.
But they kept their composure and reduced arrears when Tomas Sackmann capitalised on an error and surged over, Durandt Gerber’s conversion making it 12-7.
As Exiles grew in stature, Dragons wilted in the heat, seeing Scott Hayes and Richards sent to the sin-bin in quick succession before the interval for infringing near their try line.
It didn’t work and Exiles were level when Sackmann went over again to tie the scores after the hooter.
In a thrilling second half, Thinus Steyn’s brilliant cover tackle prevented Richards from giving the lead back to Dragons. A third Dragon, Niko Volavola, was then shown yellow as Exiles again threatened.
They wasted the opportunity but were soon celebrating taking the lead when Terry Jacobs cut through the line to go in under the posts with 20 seconds remaining.
Dragons had one more chance but a knock-on ended the contest and sent the Exiles players and sideline into frenzied celebration.
Having discussed with his dad last year how special it would be to win a title at the Sevens and with Hughes planning to head back home at the end of the season, the man from Rutherglen is rapturous about the memory he’ll get to take back to South Lanarkshire.
Hughes said: “I’ll probably move back to Scotland at the end of April/May so to get an opportunity to play, never mind come away with such a fantastic result, it means the world to me and will be a memory I’ll take with me for the rest of my life and my career.
“I spoke to dad about it last year and he told me if I got to the final it would be one of the highlights of my career, so to get the opportunity this year means a lot.
“Just going on the pitch was emotional enough and it was hard to fight back the tears. The euphoria and the memories, it all just kind of collided at the final whistle when we won. It meant a lot more to be than just stepping out on that pitch. I was doing it for someone else.
“It feels good, like I’m still doing something for him. I wasn’t going to do any sports but he was so passionate so there’s still that connection.
“He loved watching me and my brother competing so to keep it going means a lot to me. Everything I do now I do it for him, it gives me that extra boost. And it’s a perfect tribute to him.”
They won five of six tournaments on their way to a dominant fifth-straight title last season, but New Zealand had to be content with fifth place in Dubai as their HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series season got off to a shaky start in the UAE.
The worst finish for Allan Bunting’s side last season was third in Sydney, but the Black Ferns endured a quarter-final exit yesterday, beaten after the hooter 14-12 by the USA, who had also defeated them in the semi-finals Down Under in February to ruin their perfect season.
And it was Richie Walker’s women who again scuppered their path to glory yesterday, Kelsi Stockert touching down following a New Zealand mistake at the death and Leyla Alev Kelter’s nerveless conversion earning a two point victory.
That was in stark contrast to the 45-14 hammering handed out to them by the same opponents less than 24 hours earlier in the pool stages.
Black Ferns skipper Sarah Goss insisted her side hadn’t underestimated the US following that handsome victory on Thursday, and said defeat would make them “look deeper” into what went wrong and how to improve in time for Sydney, the second leg of the new campaign, in January.
“We obviously had the ball and gave it away and they scored after the hooter, so there were a few key moments,” said Goss when asked what went wrong.
“But it’s alright, I’m still proud of the effort of the girls. I know they’ve worked hard and I know we’ll come back bigger and stronger from that.
“We definitely didn’t think we were going to have it easy. We’ve had some tough matches against them (the US) before and it’s a quarter-final in Dubai so we know they were going to throw everything at us.
“Like I said there were a few key moments where we let ourselves down and they scored at the end to win the game.
“In the other five games we put a lot of points on teams and we had to defend a lot against the US. Potentially that let us down, trying to keep hold of possession. If you don’t have the ball you can’t score tries and it showed as we didn’t win that game.”
They certainly didn’t lack any attacking prowess in Dubai, the Ferns also scoring 40 in a 40-0 demolition of South Africa on Thursday.
They beat France 28-7 and then whitewashed David Courteix’s side in the fifth-placed final yesterday – New Zealand suffering the ignominy of being shunted outside the main stadium onto Pitch 2 for their last two games of the weekend (they trounced Spain 43-0 in the fifth place semi-final).
Portia Woodman crossed for a hat-trick in a 24-0 victory, Michaela Blyde dotting down for the other try against France.
“We’re obviously a bit disappointed with that quarter-final. We came back to win the last two games so that was really pleasing for us,” added Goss, who will now head home to enjoy the Christmas holidays before getting back to action early in the new year.
“The girls have worked really hard and now we can go home and enjoy some time with family and friends before Sydney.
“It’s difficult to gauge where you and opponents are in the first tournament of the new season. That loss makes us look a little deeper into why it happened so we’ll be doing a big review.
“But it’s Christmas when we get home so we’ll definitely be enjoying that with our families before restarting for a big year next year.”