Having been told by organisers they would be attending a Fijian inspired fitness session, unsuspecting UAE fitness lovers were astonished to find themselves lined up at the bottom of one of Dubai’s most imposing sand dunes.
Not only that, they were greeted by two of world rugby’s all-time greats, Brian O’Driscoll and George Gregan, as well as celebrated sevens super coach Ben Ryan.
Ryan is famed for his energy sapping fitness sessions on the torturous dunes of Fiji, who dared them to emulate the strength, resolve and mental strength of his Olympic gold medal winning side.
The locals were then split into two teams to take on three challenges aimed at challenging body and mind.
Sport360’s very own Niall McCague was on hand to take part and said: “It gave a great insight into what makes the Fijians the fittest athletes in the game.
“The desert sand is so soft, absorbing any power and spring in the lower body and leaving the legs screaming with lactic acid. The Fijians’ gold medal is a testament to training like that day in day out. They’re extraordinary athletes, both physically and mentally.”
For Ryan, clearly at home in the surroundings of imposing dunes, there were no surprises in the reactions of the participants.
“Playing rugby sevens at the highest level demands everything of the human body, both physically and mentally and today has proven that achieving greatness doesn’t just happen overnight,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fun putting these fitness freaks through their paces, sapping their energy and spirit to show how rugby sevens has taken performance to whole new levels around the world.”
Watched on by recently-departed coach Ben Ryan, the 2016 Olympic champions and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series holders were outgunned during a 26-14 final defeat. The Sevens Stadium witnessed an exhibition of electric finishing as the 2016/17 season got under way, from which the dominant side emerged with the trophy.
Tries from fly-half Cecil Afrika and 11-point Branco du Preez gave Neil Powell’s men an early lead, before Fiji captain Osea Kolinisau struck to make it 14-7 at half-time.
The score had been levelled at 14-14 seconds after the restart once fly-half Jerry Tuwai scurried clear, but this was the cue for the Blitzbokke to live up to their nickname.
Forward Chris Dry showed composure to engineer an immediate response , with rapier winger Senatla latching onto a kick forward at the death for his leading 11th score of the tournament to seal the win for the bronze medallists from Rio.
“We have forgotten about the Olympics and nothing that happened there is going to help us this season,” said Senatla, whose nation are now five-time Dubai winners. “We knew we needed to start afresh.
“It is such a pleasure for me as a finisher to play with guys that are so magical with the ball in hand. It is not quite close to heaven, but it feels like it is heaven when I play with these guys.”
South Africa put in the display of the event when they annihilated New Zealand 40-0 in the quarter-finals, while their 30-try haul was five more than anyone else.
Fiji had been the class of the field in South America this summer, but this was a relative struggle for them. The only match they truly dominated was the 40-5 dismantling of France in the last-eight, with three tight victories coming in Friday’s Pool A and a rousing comeback required to see off much-improved England 31-12 in the semi-finals.
Only six members of the history-making 13-man squad were present in the UAE.
A permanent replacement for Ryan – who prevailed in Dubai last season – in Gareth Baber will also not be in situ until next year, with previous strength and conditioning coach Nacani Cawanibuka put in temporary control. The interim leader was gracious in defeat.
He said: “We had high hopes about actually winning it, but congratulations to a very good South Africa team. Our boys worked hard, but there were a few moments where we did not stick to our guns.”
There is little opportunity for rest as the action heads to Cape Town next weekend. South Africa boss Powell believed victory would provide “confidence, expectation and pressure” for the imminent event on home soil.
He said: “Against Fiji, there are always going to be only one or two tries in it. To be honest after half-time when they scored under the posts, I was a little bit nervous.
“But I am very happy with the performance.
This gives us confidence, expectation and pressure (for Cape Town). It is going to be key to us to get this out of our system, close the door and then start building again.”
There was no such elation for the All Blacks Sevens. The first tournament since iconic coach Sir Gordon Tietjens walked away after 22 years in charge featured the humiliation in the Cup to South Africa and a 20-12 loss to Antipodean rivals Australia in the Plate semi-final.
“We got taught a good lesson that if you come underprepared at this level, that’s what you’re going to get,” said shell-shocked interim boss Tomasi Cama.
Australia would go on to claim the Plate with a 19-12 win against Scotland. The United States defea-ted Samoa – Tietjens next team – 28-14 in the Bowl showpiece, while Canada came away with the Shield after edging Uganda 20-17.
Last month picked up the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year award after scoring 66 tries during a memorable 2015-16 season.
In what was a tumultuous year for the 23-year-old South African, many believed Osea Kolinisau – another star operating at an immense level – deserved the accolade after captaining Fiji to a first Olympian gold medal and a second World Sevens Series crown.
But if there was any doubt about where the award went, it was nullified in Dubai this weekend as Senatla crossed the line for 11 tries and looked virtually unmarkable during the Blitzboks’ successful campaign.
At 6’1 and only 76kg, he possesses frightening pace and power. Against Wales in the semi-final he scored three first-half tries, with his first five metres taking him past two players at a time. It’s scary to think a winger competing at this level can make it look so easy.
To see the extent of his ability first-hand Saturday also proves his all-round class. Not only can he beat opponents and score tries, but he is also solid in defence and demonstrated this when holding up a series of attacks against Wales and Fiji, at points in the game when South Africa were under pressure.
In most teams – amateur and professional – a lethal winger can sometimes be a weak tackler, but Senatla’s freakish ability to be strong in attack and defence highlights his status as the best player in sevens rugby.
When South Africa stepped out against Fiji in the final, it was always going to be a gripping encounter. Fresh from winning gold at the Olympics, the Islanders were brimming with confidence as they eyed a fifth Dubai crown.
But the South Africans were optimistic as well with Senatla at the fore, and the man from Welkom provided the assist to send Cecil Afrika over for the opening try after two minutes.
At 14-14 in the second-half, a cleverly weighed kick over the top was collected by Senatla and he brushed through unopposed from 20 metres to score an 11th tournament try and seal a thrilling win for the Blitzboks.
A former South African U20 star, Senatla has Super Rugby experience after lining out six times for the Stormers. A central part of an impressive Blitzbloks outfit, he recently signed a joint contract between the SA Rugby and the WP Rugby Union for the next three years and will link up again with the Stormers in January.
Sevens has always taken his preference, but with the Springboks struggling under Allister Cotzee, could 2017 be the year we see the most devastating finisher in the game line out for the 15s side?
It may be too early to get excited, but Senatla’s superiority in Dubai shows a player with the complete array of skills required to thrive at any level.