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.”
Defending Dubai and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions South Africa chalked up three wins on the opening day of the new season, but Neil Powell and Werner Kok were far from happy with the beginning to their two trophy defences.
The two-time series champions laboured to a 19-10 victory in their Pool A opener against invitational side Uganda, before stepping up the pace as they conceded just five more points in their remaining two games – claiming a 46-5 victory against Kenya and beating Canada 28-0.
Despite not being satisfied with their start and claiming his side must “start all over again” today, coach Powell was delighted with the character his side showed.
“It’s a sign of a good team when they play badly and can still win,” said the 39-year- old, himself a former Blitzbokke player.
“It’s going to be tough tomorrow and one the guys need to be up for it.
“I was happy after the last game. We had a slow start against Uganda, very disappointed with that performance. Because the guys haven’t played together as maybe the 12 we have, there was a little bit of rustiness. But they stepped up the next two games.”
Powell had said there was no pressure on his side coming into the tournament, despite a dominant 2016/17 in which they won five of the eight tournaments, and finished second in the remaining three.
It is a huge year for sevens rugby, with the Rugby World Cup Sevens taking place in America next summer and the Commonwealth Games – another title the South Africans will be defending – in Australia in April.
Powell admitted it is always difficult to gauge how your own team and opponents will perform in the opening leg, so he was pleased to emerge from day one unscathed.
“It is difficult. You’ll never know until you get here,” he added.
“You might play some games back in South Africa but it’s not the quality of the teams here. These guys challenge you a bit more. We pride ourselves on defence and I think that was very disappointing against Uganda. But the guys showed character to come back.”
His words were echoed by Werner Kok, the Western Province winger who was part of that 2014 Commonwealth Games success, as well as being in the side that won bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“It could have been better,” he said bluntly of the opening day.
“We still made a lot of mistakes, lots of opportunities we didn’t take and I think we’ll go home, look at the videos and see where we can get better.”
He did add that it was a good sign they played badly yet still opened up the season with three straight wins.
“It’s definitely good, as it doesn’t allow us to get complacent. The bad start against Uganda was actually a good thing. To put us back into basics and we realised it’s not going to happen by itself. The boys pulled together and we had two other good games.”