Late in January 2001, in the Argentine beach resort of Mar del Plata, the third Rugby World Cup Sevens found its home.
For the first time the eight quarter-finalists from the previous tournament – Fiji, South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand, England, Australia, France, Korea – qualified automatically with the host nation, while the other 15 places were contested at eight qualifying tournaments involving a record 91 nations.
GEORGIA ENTER THE WORLD STAGE
Among these qualifiers were four newcomers to the RWC Sevens stage in Kenya, Chile, Russia and Georgia, the latter making history as the country’s first national team to reach a major tournament only three years after taking up the sport.
There was no place though for Scotland, the inventors of the sevens game, with the remaining places going to Ireland, Cook Islands, Chinese Taipei, Canada, Zimbabwe, Japan, Spain, Wales, Portugal, Hong Kong and the USA.
The 24 nations were divided into four pools of six with the top two in each progressing to the Melrose Cup quarter-finals, the next two to the Plate competition and the bottom two into the Bowl competition.
Defending champions Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia topped their respective pools and were joined in the Melrose Cup last eight by runners-up Argentina, Canada, England and Samoa.
However, not all enjoyed an easy passage. England, the inaugural champions in 1993, lost two of their five games and would have missed out had Spain not lost to Japan after a last-minute try by Daisuke Ohata, while Canada only edged Chinese Taipei on points difference in Pool C.
RUSH'S UNLUCKY BREAK
Australia looked impressive, as had Fiji with Rupeni Caucau announcing his arrival on the world stage with seven tries in two games, while New Zealand suffered a huge blow when inspirational captain Eric Rush broke his leg against England.
Rush flew home to Auckland for surgery on the career-threatening injury, but not before his team-mates had given him a Maori send-off, performing the haka in his honour. With Rush absent a certain Jonah Lomu filled in and New Zealand still managed to reach the semi-finals along with Australia, Fiji, and Argentina.
Spurred on by a passionate home crowd, Argentina had provided the upset of the quarter-finals by recovering from a slow start to beat South Africa 14-12. However, they were unable to repeat these heroics against an inspired New Zealand and lost 31-7.
The other semi-final was a much closer affair with Fiji racing into a 14-0 lead only for Australia to hit back and capitalise on an injury to Marika Vunibaka to claim a first victory over their rivals for two years.
A new champion was therefore guaranteed and unfortunately for Australia – the only one of the leading nations not to call up their big names – it was not to be them as they suffered another final loss, following their 1993 defeat by England.
Australia simply had no answer to one man: Jonah Lomu. The powerful New Zealand winger scored three of his side's five tries in the 31-12 final victory to deservedly walk away with the man of the match honour.
Russia overcame neighbours Georgia 24-12 to win the Plate final – thereby ensuring they were the highest ranked Europeans behind former champions England – while Chile showed great promise in narrowly beating Portugal 21-19 in the Bowl final.
What the winners said ...
Coach Gordon Tietjens (New Zealand): “Everybody felt very bad when Eric left the team, but everybody also found new motivation to win the title. He was part of this squad. He played five games in the tournament, so he is one of our sevens world champions.”
Karl Te Nana (New Zealand): “The 2001 World Cup was a special time.
“We didn't have it all our own way, it was a rough ride and Argentina were really tough opponents in the semi-final, especially with the local crowd. They were baying for blood and that’s what galvanised us. We knew that 40,000 Argentines wanted us to lose and that inspired us and luckily we played well enough to make the final.
“We knew that if we could get to the big show then that’s where Jonah (Lomu) would shine. Unfortunately we’d lost our captain Eric Rush earlier in the tournament to a broken leg and Rushie had been sharing a room with Jonah, so we knew that on day three he would be a man possessed. All we had to do was get him the ball and that’s what we did in the final. He ran amuck. He was unstoppable and thank goodness he was on my team.
“On that last day there I’d say that’s the purest sevens I’ve ever been involved with. Everyone was where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. Nobody had to say anything, we’d hear one word in the back of our ear and we’d know our mate was there. I’ll never forget it.
“It’s only a small cup but it means a lot, it’s got a lot of history inside it, and to be able to bring it home to New Zealand was something special.”