With rugby sevens having proved to be a must-see sport at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the importance of Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009 in Dubai cannot be underestimated.
Seven months before the International Olympic Committee members met in Copenhagen to decide whether rugby and golf would be added to the Olympic programme, Dubai hosted the fifth edition of the tournament but, crucially, the first to feature both a men’s and a women’s competition.
That fact in itself was pivotal to the IOC’s eventual decision. That the tournament proved such a success on and off the field rubber-stamped the growing credentials of sevens.
Sixteen nations took part in the historic first women’s competition in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Uganda and USA.
The men’s competition again featured 24 nations, split into six pools, with Fiji the defending champions after their success in Hong Kong in 2005. The other participants were Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, France, Georgia, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Portugal, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Tonga, Tunisia, UAE, Uruguay, USA, Wales and Zimbabwe.
The action was intense from the outset at 7he Sevens Stadium in the Dubai desert and there were notable performances and upsets in the early rounds, but the tournament will forever be remembered for an outstanding set of Cup quarter-final matches in both competitions.
In the women’s draw USA and New Zealand passed through unscathed but alarm bells started ringing when South Africa shocked Spain and then Australia pulled off what seemed like a giant-killing against fancied England, at the time coached by both Simon Amor and Mike Friday.
One conversion proved the difference for favourites New Zealand over the USA and when Australia saw off an inspired South Africa by a single try it set up a trans-Tasman tussle to determine the first women’s champions.
In the men’s event the initial quarter-finals were even more dramatic. Former winners New Zealand were the 2007-08 series champions and expected to make the latter stages. Wales had beaten them in Wellington earlier that year, though, and ultimately that result was to give Paul John’s men the confidence to take on New Zealand and beat them 15-14.
It was a result that the wheels in motion for a startling domino effect as shock after shock reverberated around the Dubai crowd. With Ben Gollings nearing the end of his illustrious career, England were humbled by Samoa in extra-time. South Africa, who would go on to clinch the 2008-09 series title, came unstuck against Argentina and, most brutally of all, defending champions Fiji were taken apart by Kenya and lost 26-7.
The semi-finals seemed like an anti-climax, but only in so far as they could not possibly have matched the drama and excitement of the quarters. Shorn of the ‘big guns’ the draw again produced results that bucked form. Wales beat red-hot Samoa and in the final would face an Argentina side who had already beaten then in pool play after they edged South Africa.
But first, three years before the women’s series would come into being, the crowd watched the two best teams play out the historic final.
Sudden death drama
There had, of course, been Women’s Rugby World Cups in 15s, but never had they rightfully taken to the same stage as the world’s finest male players. And never had two women’s sides played out a final of such ferocious intensity, such historical significance, and in front of 30,000 people.
As three-time World Cup winners in the 15s game, it was widely expected that New Zealand would win: theirs was the experience, the weight of historical success. But the Australian women, an athletic band of ball players drawn together from rugby, touch rugby, netball, basketball and even soccer, had become close-knit and well drilled.
Ultimately they would prove worthy winners. Led by the indomitable Cheryl Soon, the Australia were more than a match for their more vaunted neighbours with Nicole Beck and Debby Hodgkinson going over for a 10-0 lead, only for Rebecca Tavo’s yellow card to see New Zealand tie the scores through Justine Lavea and Carla Hohepa either side of half-time.
It remained that way to full-time and so sudden death extra-time would decide the inaugural champions. With 36 seconds gone, New Zealand couldn’t stop Shelly Matcham and she stretched over the line for a try that sealed a 15-10 victory and sparked Australian tears of joy.
The last match of a pulsating weekend was the men's Cup final: Wales against Argentina. In pool play Argentina had come out on top but Wales’ stock had been rising throughout the tournament. Both teams were through to their first Rugby World Cup final at any level and, while Argentina had won sevens world series events on their travels, Wales were in uncharted territory.
On the day, though, they were the better team. Richie Pugh set them on their way early in the first half before Argentina's Martin Rodriguez pounced from 50 metres, but the inspirational Tal Selley reclaimed the lead for Wales with a smart individual try. Gonzalo Camacho levelled the scores and just when it seemed Argentina were upping the tempo, Aled Thomas broke through with a minute to play to seal the win. Wales, the 80-1 outsiders, were champions.
What the winners said …
Wales coach Paul John: “It was a rollercoaster, nobody saw it coming, but the thing that people don't realise is that the tournament before that one we'd gone to Wellington and beaten New Zealand in New Zealand.
“Those boys had been playing Sevens for a while and had had got that confidence in themselves - they knew they were capable of beating anyone on their day. When we came to play New Zealand in that quarter-final the fact that we had played them five or six weeks before and beaten them, I think that gave the boys a real confidence boost that they could beat anyone.
“Looking back on it, beating New Zealand and then going onto beat Argentina and win the whole thing, it was a unique experience and it's all come around so quickly again.”
Australia’s Rebecca Tavo: “It was the most amazing experience. They were the top 12 women's players in Australia for sure, the girls were at their absolute peak of fitness, they had been playing rugby for about 10 years so they were ready to roll, they were ready for anything.
“Everything just came together. A few of the players came from touch, a few from rugby, a great blend and Jason Stanton our coach was just so smart. He would give us a game plan, he would look at all the other teams and know what we were going to do.
“Everyone was worried about England and they were physically in great shape but we just went about our own business; we were quietly confident in ourselves and our own gameplan and we just took it to every game and gave it our best shot.
“I remember being sent to the sin bin (in the final) and in those two minutes they were the only points that New Zealand scored, so I didn't feel too good about that and felt like I had to come on and redeem myself.
“It hurt so much - Sevens is physically the most challenging sport I've ever played - but the crowd was going crazy and I remember digging deep. We had to fight for every inch to win that final.”