As the dust slowly settles on the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Series for 2018-2019, our guest columnist, Manoa Kamikamica pays homage to the winners, our beloved Fiji 7s Team.
After two weeks of pulsating sevens action across London and Paris which resulted in some of us suffering from sleep deprivation bordering on delirium, the end to the series was the stuff of legends.
I say this not merely because I am Fijian naturally but because it was truly an epic end to the Series.
In the end it was left to the two top teams on the HSBC 7s circuit, USA and Fiji to duel it out in the Paris 7s semi-finals. For the USA, Perry Baker returned from injury and this was cause for much optimism for the Americans. The visions of how Baker ran rings around our boys in Vegas would have fueled their optimism even though, their play maker Folau Niua was out due to injury. Fiji started well and never looked back.
Very soon, September will be upon us along with the Flying Fijian’s 2019 assault on the Rugby World Cup in Japan, but before the enthusiasm of that buildup envelops us, it is appropriate to look back and reflect on a very special HSBC 7s Series: 2018 was very good, 2019 was spectacular.
From the first tournament in Dubai 2018, USA seemed like the team to beat and New Zealand was not too far behind. Fiji stayed in the hunt winning the Cape Town 7s, then nudging ahead after taking out the Hamilton 7s title. Unfortunately our boys were pegged back a bit in the Sydney 7s after a red card to Mocenacagi put them out in the semifinals.
Fiji finished a disappointing sixth in Los Angeles but recovered some ground in Vancouver where we finished third, USA however kept making the semis, building a reasonable lead.
In the end it came down to Fiji basically having to win the last four HSBC 7s tournaments to catch USA – they won 3 out 4 and the rest is history.
Team USA’s rise this year has been quite remarkable based on the consistency they showed in making every semifinal in all 10 HSBC 7s tournaments. The only time I have ever seen a team so dominant was during New Zealand’s peak Gordon Tjiejen’s era.
There are several secrets to this rise; not surprisingly the three key ones being experience, consistency and speed, are well covered by this current USA 7s team. The core members of the USA team have been playing together for at least five years: Baker, Niua, Leuta, Isles, Tomasin, Iosefo, Barrett and Madison Hughes come to mind. They have had the same Coach in Mike Friday since 2014.
And they are spoiled for choice when it comes to speed; the man we love and hate at the same time, Perry Baker is a class act, closely followed by Carlin Isles. These 2 flyers regularly clock speeds of up to 37Km per hour and have on occasion single handedly demolished opposition. Expressions like “We ate the wrong Baker” on FaceBook was the cause of much amusement especially after the Las Vegas 7s when Perry put us to the sword.
USA is now a very balanced side and they must be congratulated for making 2019 one of the best seasons I have ever seen. They are no longer a team that relies just on speed. Make no mistake; like Fiji last year they will be hurting and provided Baker and Isles remain fit all year they will be in the mix again for the 2020 series and of course the Olympics.
Unfortunately for USA, they met a Team in Fiji that had been on a similar path in 2018 only to be denied at the final hurdle. Fiji had the lead last year and lost to England in the quarterfinals so this was at the forefront of their minds as they headed to Paris after walloping Australia in the London 7s final.
Gareth Baber, Captain Paula Dranisakula, Jerry Tuwai and team were not going to be denied. They were seeking redemption. One of the things that gave me quiet confidence was when our Fiji 7s King, Mataqali Waisale Serevi put together the Team that won our first HSBC 7s Series as player and Coach after they had also lost the year before.
It is also possible that because Fiji had dispensed with USA in London in the semifinals, we had the psychological edge. We shut down Baker and defended so hard, it is changing the way the game is played.
Defence wins matches and especially contesting at the breakdown and winning turnovers. There is also this swarming defence that Fiji has perfected that boxes in teams and pressures them into conceding errors. Perhaps Mike Friday’s outburst after the London 7s about Fiji’s illegal play, won them no friends and the referees were happy to allow Fiji to continue to do their thing the following weekend.
There were two questionable yellow cards in Paris but Fiji was so far ahead, it mattered not. I still remember the pain on Baber’s face when we lost to England on retrospectively a dubious last minute play. Jerry like the Giant he is admitted that he gave the game away and I had a feeling they would not repeat the same error.
Another source of great pride was the way the international commentators began heaping praises on this very young side as we defeated New Zealand in the Paris 7s Final. For instance, Derenalagi was being described as having the “full package”.
Fiji raised their performance in this series to another level. I guess in a way, Fiji has sent an early warning shot to all the teams coming to the 2020 Olympics; come prepared.
- We are on a “five-peat” run in Hong Kong and completed other back-to-back wins in Hamilton and London. Also, for the first time, we won two HSBC 7s tournaments in one leg consecutively – the last leg in London and Paris, putting that myth to bed that Fiji would never be able to do so. Only New Zealand and South Africa have done the same, but it is very rare.
- Gareth Baber blooded up to eight new players on the HSBC 7s circuit this year and three of them were nominated for HSBC 7s Rookie of the Year. I dare say, all three could have and should have been nominated for HSBC 7s Player of the Series. Derenalagi won this deservedly but Botitu and Tuimaba were equally brilliant. Just imagine next year. It will be special.
- This is now Gareth Baber’s Team and all the doubters can maybe apologise to Baber. After the great Ben Ryan, Baber had to rebuild the Team and took a bit of time to get “set”. Initially I thought he spoke too long at half time but now, we always love his pep talks. Even Mike Friday started copying his expression – “What is the next play?”
- Jerry Tuwai is now spoken in the same breath as Waisale Serevi, something that I thought would be hard to emulate. Another Olympic medal for Tuwai would be lovely but I digress; he is now regarded as one of the most successful players in Fiji sevens. Tuwai will pass Nasoni Roko’s record next year and barring injury will figure prominently in our Olympic title defence in Tokyo. Amazingly he is only 30 years old. King Serevi played until he was 40.
- The depth of the Fiji squad is remarkable. Any player can run on now and there is no drop in level. Baber used this weapon in the last two legs to great effect. Botitu was rested in the Finals. The Captain came in after half time. Exceptional. We even unveiled another exceptional talent in the Paris 7s Finals – Napolioni Ratu.
- The adversity that Baber and the Team had to deal with and still come out on top is admirable. We had a new Team, had a change of Captain and lost some core players during the Season for disciplinary and injury reasons. Nasoko, Nasilasila, Ravouvou, Kunavula, Nasoko and Jerry Tuwai were out at some key points but we still prevailed. This Team is special.
- The boy’s faith is the glue that holds the Team together. The sceptics will and can say what they, but want it works for us. It is part of who we are.
- Our Team showcases the best of our nation and appears to be better versions of ourselves. Humility, confidence, the drive to succeed just to name a few values on display. And when the boys hoist the Ball kids aloft, it warms the heart. Anybody that knows a Fijian will understand why we do that.
- Finally we really have to address the Elephant in the room. Given our game and how beautiful it is, we still have yet to find a sponsor that fully addresses the players’ compensation and give some real answer to Jerry Tuwai’s “knife and fork”
nalogy. I for one am happy to help out because as real fans, we should be part of the solution.
So there is not much else to say but conclude with some catch crys the boys were using. Remember our i-taukei language is a simple language and some words have deeper connotations. #cakacaka – work for each other, toil hard for your teammate, #nabaikeiViti – we are the wall of Fiji, do not allow the wall to be breached, defend it with your life #soliakecemai – give what you have left. Empty the tanks. Die if you have to.
Congratulations to Gareth Baber, Jerry Tuwai, Nasoko, Paula Dranisakula, strength and conditioner coach Naca Cawanibuka, our warriors and the Team Management plus Mataqali Tomasi Cama; you have made us all proud Fijians and inspire us to achieve great things for our small, beautiful, great Nation.
We cannot forget some of the names who have moved on this year. Veremalua , Kunavula, Ravouvou and Nasilasila thank you for your service. God bless this Team. I do hope Nasoko rejoins us next year and best wishes for his upcoming surgery.
And finally many thanks to all our Fiji fans all over the world, especially the Blue Wiggers, the Don and Mr and Mrs Ricketts. Till next season, God Bless you all.
– Manona Kamikamica
tosovititoso #timetokacabote #gofijigo #cakacaka# baikeiviti #soliakecemai