Scotland may be the birthplace of sevens rugby, but Hong Kong has long been its spiritual home. So it was only fitting that the second Rugby World Cup Sevens was held there in 1997 – the 21st year of the prestigious Hong Kong Sevens.
Three nations qualified automatically – defending champions England, runners-up Australia and the hosts – with 64 others taking part in three qualifying tournaments held in Lisbon, Dubai and Punta del Este to determine the other 21 teams.
New Zealand, Fiji and France won those respective tournaments, which also saw four nations qualify for the RWC Sevens for the first time in the Cook Islands, Portugal, Morocco and Zimbabwe.
The first day in Hong Kong saw the teams divided into eight pools of three with England, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, France, Spain, South Africa and Samoa emerging as the winners of the preliminary pools.
The 24 nations were then redrawn into eight new pools for the ranking round on day two with the winners progressing to the Melrose Cup quarter-finals, the runners-up to the Plate competition and the remaining teams into the Bowl.
Seven of these eight pools were topped by unbeaten teams, the exception being Pool G which witnessed a 12-12 draw between Spain and Korea and ultimately was decided in the latter’s favour on points difference since both had beaten Zimbabwe.
Fiji had arguably been the most impressive, the tournament favourites not conceding a point in reaching the Cup quarter-finals and scoring 205 of their own in accounting for Portugal, Hong Kong, Namibia and Wales.
At the heart of Fiji’s progression was their captain Waisale Serevi, the sevens maestro who scored 26 of the Islanders’ points in their 56-0 quarter-final defeat of Korea to move one step closer to fulfilling his promise of returning home with the Melrose Cup.
Samoa were their next opponents, having ended England’s hold on the trophy with a 21-5 victory, while the other semi-final pitted South Africa against New Zealand after they overcame France and Australia.
South Africa, inspired by captain Joost van der Westhuizen, proved too strong for New Zealand to end their hopes of a fourth straight victory in the Hong Kong Sevens and Samoa became the first nation to score against Fiji, nevertheless going down 38-14.
The showdown for the Melrose Cup was one of the greatest games of sevens ever seen and one that kept the 40,000 crowd on the edge of their seats until Fiji ultimately emerged 24-21 victors.
Serevi raised aloft the coveted trophy that his side had apparently nicknamed ‘Meli’. Having played such outstanding sevens over three glorious days – including 117 points from Serevi in the tournament – the team was free to do just about anything it pleased.
Furthermore Fiji were not the only Pacific Islanders celebrating as Tonga overcame hosts Hong Kong 40-19 to win the Plate final. A similarly high-scoring affair saw the USA beat Japan 40-28 to take the Bowl.
What the winners said …
Waisale Serevi (Fiji): “Sevens is part of every Fijian rugby player’s life and the Rugby World Cup Sevens means a lot to me and the people of Fiji.
“We played well and then we played in the final against South Africa, who had won the Rugby World Cup in South Africa two years before in 1995 and were coming to Hong Kong with all their top players – van der Westhuizen, Skinstad, Venter and Rossouw – they really wanted to win the World Cup in Sevens too.
“I can remember warming up, though, and seeing the crowd and one of the Fiji supporters had a sign saying ‘Take it home Fiji’ and I said to the boys, ‘Look, you have to play like this is the last game of your lives and you’ll never play rugby again. This is an opportunity for you to get on the field and do something for your country’.
“In the final they scored two tries and under the posts I said to the boys that we needed to get the ball, and we needed to score a try before half-time. Then they lost the ball, we scored and came back into it and won.
“Winning that little Cup was huge for people in Fiji.