Speranza 22 finally got the heart-warming win they’d hungered five years for, yet in the intervening years where victory had been agonisingly close yet oh so far away, something much more important had been formed – a family.
Speranza 22 was set up in 2013 as a group of friends who played together at Abu Dhabi Harlequins wanted to honour their pal Marco Speranza, who died in a plane crash, aged just 20, in his native Argentina that February.
More than 50 players have worn the sky blue Speranza 22 shirt over the course of the last five Dubai Rugby Sevens, and three of the players who finally tasted triumph on Pitch 1 at The Sevens Stadium in front of thousands on Saturday would have been looking skywards and thinking of their friend.
Brothers Rodrigo, Ignacio and Nico Costa are the only three remaining from the original Speranza side of 2013, with middle sibling Ignacio having played alongside Marco in the Quins side that won the Gulf U18s title at the Sevens in 2009.
Speranza earned a pretty convincing victory in Saturday’s International Invitation Men’s Cup final, beating SA 7s Academy – boasting perhaps some future South African sevens international in their ranks – convincingly, 17-5.
Speranza’s dad Orlando, who still lives in the UAE capital, was on the pitch to celebrate with the Costa brothers and the rest of the team, along with daughters Nadia and Agostina, something Greene admitted was very special.
“The emotions are pretty raw, there were tears streaming down my face on the pitch when the final whistle went,” said Rory Greene, the Speranza coach, who is also Mike McFarlane’s assistant at Quins.
“Orlando, Marco’s dad, was there on the pitch with us thanks to organisers. And to have him there and Nadia and Agostina on the sidelines, it was amazing.”
Although nothing compared to the heartache Orlando, Stella (Marco’s mother, the couple are now divorced) and the Speranza family would have felt after losing their son five years ago, Speranza 22’s road to Sevens glory has been a heartbreaking one.
They were beaten by Wyvern Harlequins in the semi-finals of the International Open Men’s Trophy competition on debut in 2013. It was to turn into a rivalry over the ensuing years, Speranza beaten 21-17 by Wyvern in the 2014 Trophy final and then again 21-19 in the Trophy quarter-finals a year later, while defeat came at the hands of Projecx Waterboys 26-19 in last year’s Plate final.
They were not to be denied a sixth time, however, with a second half flurry seeing SA put to the sword with a three-try flurry, with the young Blitzbokke getting a consolation score right at the death.
In a double celebration, Speranza’s second side also tasted glory in the International Open Men’s section too, beating Olymp Men 33-12 in the Plate final.
Despite finally breaking their trophy duck, Greene insists the Speranza 22 brand now transcends winning.
“Every year it hurts when we’ve lost, every day it hurts when we think about Marco. He’s such a special boy,” said Greene.
“Originally we set it up just so the boys who played with Marco could have a bit of a reunion and it’s now grown into something so much bigger.
“We’ve had 55 boys pull on the Speranza shirt and it’s about building a legacy for Marco. We can do that by playing a bit of footy, advertising for good causes.
“Of course we want to win but it’s so much more than that. All we ask is someone who puts the shirt on to represent the brand the way Marco would have. If you have good people the quality will come with that. I can say without a shadow of a doubt there’s not one of the 50-odd lads I wouldn’t have back in a heartbeat tomorrow.”
The team has come together through tragedy and created a special bond, a new family. And Orlando insists the entire squad are all now part of his family.
“It is something unbelievable that people coming from all over the world were cheering your name, wearing your jersey and being at the stadium was something that I will never forget,” said Speranza Snr, 53, an aircraft engineer who works for LATAM Etihad.
“Marco is not with us but I have seen Marco in every person who participate in our movement. The Costas, they are the ones who spread our word in New Zealand and put together a great team and fantastic players.
“But most importantly they are great human beings, with our sponsors, who believe and trust in our cause. They are legends, they are family, this is the Speranza 22 family.”
It might be a tournament held in the comfort of their own backyard, but the Dubai Sevens has been more of a house of horrors for the British School Al Khubairat in recent memory.
The Abu Dhabi-based school have endured disappointment after bitter disappointment in Dubai of late – but they laid to rest some ghosts with a commanding 22-5 defeat of resident Sevens kings Dubai College in the Gulf U19 Boys final on Saturday.
Dubai schools have held something of a monopoly on their home tournament in the last seven years. DC won four titles in a row from 2011-14 – whitewashing BSAK in the 2011 final 26-0 – while Dubai English Speaking College were reigning champions (Al Ain Amblers beat DC in 2015’s final.
They exited at the semi-final stage in each of the next four years – falling to Abu Dhabi Harlequins, DC, Dubai English Speaking College and Al Ain – but the demons were well and truly exorcised on the grandest stage yesterday, with the final held as always on Pitch 1 in front of crowds of thousands.
It was a convincing win in the end, by four tries to one, with all four tries scored by separate players. And that shared responsibility is what head coach Ali Thompson feels was the bedrock of a long-awaited success.
“I think that’s been the difference,” said BSAK assistant head Thompson.
“We have 12 players who can each make an impact. It’s great to get the win which is something we haven’t been able to do over the years.”
James Wilson, one of the youngest players on the team, opened the scoring in thrilling fashion with a lung-busting length of the field try, Callum Anderson converting.
They were 12-0 up in no time with a slick move finished off by Morgan Ashton. They endured a bit if a nervy wobble after the break when Jacques Benade’s men briefly mounted a comeback with an unconverted try.
They could have wilted and allowed past memories of failure cloud their thoughts – particularly defeat to DESC in last year’s final – but instead they moved through the gears. Tobi Sofidiya cut through a tired DC defence to socred their third and they put the icing on the cake at the death with Luke Gammell sealing a precious triumph.
Rather than be weighed down by past defeats, Thompson claimed defeat has only strengthened BSAK’s resolve.
“I think it’s seven years since we last won it and losing in the final last year was hard on the boys, but every cloud has a silver lining,” said the Scotsman.
“The starting squad, every single member played in that final last year, so they’ve had that disappointment.
“You can win or lose that game in the tunnel, with the big pitch to play on. The boys were relaxed and knew what to expect. That stood us in great stead.
“They were in the changing rooms 30 minutes before the final singing songs and quite relaxed, and they just went out there. They’ve been outstanding all weekend.
“It’s been a six month journey, they started in June, and they’ve reaped the rewards. To have nine boys returning is a huge bonus. We brought in two young Year 11s and James Wilson off the bench, and you saw the impact.”
After a sobering year in which they failed to win a single final and bid farewell to symbolic coach Sir Gordon Tietjens – Scott Curry believes the future is once again bright for sevens rugby in New Zealand.
Tietjens stood down from a role he had held for 22 years in August last year, following an unsuccessful Olympic bid in Rio where the All Blacks Sevens exited to eventual champions Fiji at the quarter-final stage.
In their first HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series that followed without their legendary leader, New Zealand finished fourth, their worst finish in eight seasons. They also failed to win any of the 10 tournaments – something that had only happened twice in the previous 18 editions of the series since it was first introduced by the IRB (World Rugby) in the 1999/2000 campaign.
A young squad with some fresh faces, put together by new coach Clark Laidlaw and his new management team, has been together a matter of months, whereas opponents have been building for years.
Yet, despite all this, the All Blacks made the final in the 2017/18 series opener in Dubai on Saturday – where they eventually fell to South Africa, the new dominant force on the circuit who are aiming to emulate New Zealand’s majestic feat of 12 series crowns.
New Zealand are in a rebuilding phase, but co-captain Curry claims that doesn’t count as an excuse for not winning.
“We always put pressure on ourselves to win every game,” said Manawatu man Curry.
“I wouldn’t say we’re surprised to be in a final. Every time we go out to play we expect to win. We’re disappointed we lost but we’re excited with what’s to come.
“We were talking before the South Africa game, thinking we’ve still got a lot to work on, which we do, so to reach a final is pretty pleasing and I’m really proud of the boys’ effort over the weekend.
“We’ve only been together a couple of months whereas most teams have been together for years. So for us it’s an exciting time.”
WATCH | Hear how the All Blacks Sevens reacted to their encounter against the defending champions South Africa in the final of the Dubai Sevens.
— NZ7s (@nz7s) December 3, 2017
Curry and Co were beaten 24-12 at The Sevens in the final game of the weekend, the Blitzbokke breezing into a 19-0 first half lead before Andrew Knewstubb and Curry saw the men in black reduce the gap to 19-12 with a quickfire double.
But Tim Agaba powered over to win it for South Africa at the death. Curry felt his side let the opportunity to triumph slip through their grasp, but claims they will take the positives from defeat and use it to improve during the term.
“The bounce of the ball, we were a little unlucky, it comes down to those little things in a final,” said 29-year-old Curry.
“We needed to score in that first half and we didn’t finish our opportunities, which you need to do in a final. Some of our boys have never been in a final before, so we’ll learn from that.”
And despite reaching the Dubai final, Curry said no goals for the season will be set.
He added: “Not really. We just go out to win every game and do that black jersey and each other proud and not disappoint each other.”
Teammate Sam Dickson was similarly encouraged by the team’s performance.
“A young team, new coaching staff, first tournament so we’re pretty happy with that,” said Dickson, 28, who made his sevens bow in the 2012/13 campaign.
“A few things to work on but against one of the best teams in the world and stacked with experience, to take it right to the end, we’re pretty stoked with that.
“It’s hugely encouraging. We put in a lot of hard work over the pre-season, not just physically but in our culture so it’s good to see it’s paid off for today.”
New Zealand results:
New Zealand 24-12 Samoa
New Zealand 21-19 Argentina
New Zealand 22-17 United States
New Zealand 14-12 Kenya
New Zealand 14-5 England
New Zealand 12-24 South Africa