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
He was nicknamed “Zebra” at birth, and Kwagga Smith has certainly been showing his stripes by staring for South Africa in two codes of rugby this year.
An intrinsic part of the South Africa sevens set-up for several years – he won a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – Smith enjoyed a breakout year in 15s rugby as he made the Super Rugby final with the Lions, who were beaten 25-17 by New Zealand’s Crusaders.
On top of that he was named man of the match for the Barbarians against New Zealand a few weeks ago and collected the Player of the Final award last night as South Africa swept to a 24-12 win at the Dubai Sevens, the opening leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Zebra can seemingly do no wrong – and now he’s targeting a place in the Springboks 2019 Rugby World Cup squad.
“You must set your goals and my next goal is the Commonwealth Games and the Sevens World Cup,” Smith, 24, said after Saturday night’s triumph.
“After that I will do my best to get into the Springbok team for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. I’ll just try my best, work hard and give myself the best chance that I can give myself. And then we can look at others like another Olympics, if I’m blessed to play for so long.”
Smith, whose birth name is actually Albertus Stephanus Smith, told a touching tale in which he revealed he was actually given the name Kwagga – the Afrikans word for quagga, an extinct subspecies of plains zebra – by his older brother Willem on the night he was born.
Smith said: “I’ll tell you a story, it’s easier to understand. My brother Willem is two years older than me and we (family) farm in northern South Africa.
“The night I was born he was with my grandparents on the farm and they asked him ‘what’s your brother’s name?’, and obviously my brother is two-years-old, he grew up on the farm, he knew animal names, and he just said ‘Kwagga’ and it’s just stuck.”
Smith has certainly been a beast in his early career in rugby, switching seamlessly from sevens to 15s. And having shone against the All blacks in a 31-22 defeat at Twickenham on November 4, Smith is happy to be back with his sevens family for the 2017/18 World Series campaign.
He added: “Both give you satisfaction. For me it’s just an honour to play and earn the respect from the other players. It was awesome to meet new guys with the Barbarians, and it’s awesome to be back with my family and contribute while I’m here.”
And despite his flawless transition between the codes, Smith admits it’s been a lot of hard work on his part, as well as that of his coaches at both levels.
“It’s easy for me to come into a team like this and perform because the guys are so willing to work for you and it helps they make you feel so welcome,” he said.
“I’m lucky because I’ve been doing this for five/six years now, going to 15s and coming back in, the coaches have helped me and it’s awesome to be with the guys again.
“It’s definitely not been easy, coming from sevens to 15s and playing Super Rugby. I’ve had a few Currie Cup seasons but never played a full Super Rugby season, but it’s easy to go into a system where the team is doing well.
“I’ve performed there and there’s some good coaches, Johann Ackerman (former Lions coach) is a brilliant coach and had the trust in me and my abilities, and has given me the chance to prove myself.”