Monday, December 27, 2010

The Passion For The 7s Rugby

The most symbolic sporting moments of 2010 - perhaps the Superbowl winning New Orleans Saints as a metaphor of the rebirth of their city after Hurricane Katrina, the Ryder Cup as an emblem of European golf's rise, Rafael Nadal's three tennis Grand Slam wins as possibly the end of the Federer era - trip almost instantly off the tongue.
There are higher profile underdog stories such as Qatar's successful 2022 World Cup bid, Francesca Schiavone claiming the French Open as a 29-year-old 17th seed or Louis Oosthuizen winning the Open Championship at the home of golf by a mile, but perhaps the greatest against-the-odds triumph of 2010 was the miniscule Pacific island of Samoa being crowned champions of the 2009/10 IRB Sevens World Series.
Located halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, you could fit the 180,000 population of Samoa into Twickenham and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the adult male population of a sports-playing age wouldn't fill either one of the pitches.
Yet, on 30 May at Murrayfield, the home of Scottish Rugby, captain Lolo Lui scored a drop-goal penalty in the 14th energy-sapping minute of extra-time to win their Edinburgh Sevens Cup semi final against England and secure the title for Samoa.
Given the size of their nation, that in itself would be enough. Add in the fact that Samoa weren't using any of their legions of overseas-based professional rugby players and it becomes remarkable. Consider the fact that Samoa's entire delegation of athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics totalled six, that five of them didn't even get past the first phase in their events and in seven visits into the five-ring circus not one Samoan has returned with a medal, and it becomes exceptional.
Welcome home
"Before this year our greatest sporting triumph was winning the 2007 Hong Kong Sevens ... before that? I have no idea. I guess there hadn't been any major achievements," said Samoan coach Stephen Betham, who oversaw a remarkable transformation as his side won four of the season's last five events in Las Vegas, Adelaide, Hong Kong and, eventually, Edinburgh.
When they flew back from Scotland seemingly the entire population came out to greet them.
"It was unbelievable! When we arrived home we had to have a police escort from the airport into town. We were mobbed by people at the airport and for the 30-35 minutes drive into town there were people lined up on both sides of the road all the way into town. It was great to see; old people and young children lining the road waving and cheering the team," Betham recalls.
It almost goes without saying a national holiday was declared.
One of the primary factors in the triumph were the funding and the expertise that the IRB's high performance initiative has ploughed into the so-called Tier 2 and 3 rugby-playing nations, which as well as driving the development of the Game in the Pacific Island has also been helping the national teams in countries like Canada, Georgia, Namibia and Russia become more competitive.
Single greatest achievement?
"It is one of the great 'little-engine-that-could' stories in any sport anywhere in the world this year. It is proof that passion and planning, coupled with ability and opportunity, can help even the smallest of nations find their place in the sporting world.
"The fact that Samoa proved that emerging nations can not only compete but can also triumph against the traditional giants of the sport and the IRB's determination to give them every opportunity is one of the things that sealed our deal to sponsor the HSBC Sevens World Series," said Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.
Mark Egan, the International Rugby Board's Head of Development and Performance, went one further, describing Samoa's triumph as a milestone for the sport.
"In terms of cup winning in global competition, it might be the single greatest achievement in the history of the sport," he said.
"You might think of Fiji, but they've about five times the Samoan population. No other country of such a small size and with such limited resources has achieved what they have done. With the right strategic investment small countries can compete, especially in Sevens."
Becoming a family
Repeating their success in the 2010/11 season will not be easy, however. Their star and IRB Sevens Player of the Year - 26-year-old winger Mikaele Pesamino - is bound for Sale Sharks in England's Aviva Premiership and may be lost to Samoan Sevens.
This follows hot on the heels of legend Uale Mai, the most capped player in Sevens history, whose move to Club de Rugby El Salvador in Valladolid, Spain, at the start of the year denied them another star player.
To make matters worse, captain Lolo Lui tore an anterior cruciate ligament in Dubai in the first event of the 2010/11 HSBC Sevens World Series and will be out for around six months.
Whatever happens, nothing can take away what the team achieved. In Samoa, they will be treated the way the bigger countries treat their Rugby World Cup or FIFA World Cup winning sides.
"We've become one family. After winning the World Series we've all become really close. This was our third year together and I knew they had all of the potential and the talent; it was about getting them a focus in their life and what their targets were and achieving their targets," Betham explained.
"We had an idea and we pulled in the senior players and convinced them of what needed to be done and they filtered it down to the younger players. They followed it through and we ended up at the top!" - IRB

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