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Our first 7s double

Manoj Kumar
Monday, January 07, 2013

YOU talk about the Hong Kong Sevens, you talk about Fiji. New Zealand and Gordon Tietjens are the conquers of the Sevens World Series but Fiji remain the darlings of So Kon Po Stadium.

We were the first team to retain the title (in 1978).

We were the first team to claim a hat-trick of crowns (in 1992).

We are the only team to have played the most finals in a row (eight from 1995 to 2002).

We were the first team to claim a World Cup victory at Son Kon Po (1997) and then added the second to it (2005).

Out of the 37 finals contested since the tournament began in 1976, we have featured in the most (23).

Class of '78

New Zealand side Cantabarians and the Aussie Wallaroos played the first final in 1976 as in the first few years, only clubs represented Australia and New Zealand.

The Kiwis won 24-8 but then came Fiji the year after.

The Fijians won the 1977 final 28-18 over New Zealand side Marlborough. Onto 1978, and with Ilaitia Tuisese, who starred in '77, out, the pressure was on the Fijians to retain the title.

Coach/manager Pio Bosco Tikoisuva put together a formidable 8-man team.

Yes, eight-man unlike the 12 we have now. We could only take eight players back then.

That's why Bosco had to train and stay fit as well, just in case he was called up if someone was ruled out injured. The forwards in his team were skipper, the late, Rupeni Ravonu, Nadi's Vuata Naresia, Rewa's Jo Rauto and Nadi's Kata Ratumuri. The backs were made up of Isimeli Batibasaga, Senitiki Nasave, Robert Howard (all from Nadroga) and Rewa's Qele Ratu.

Tough build-up

Ratumuri, who my work colleague and The Fiji Times oldest employee, Aisea Naulago, remembers as "Shadow", was to play the same role as Tuisese by being the key man in the set-pieces.

Nasave and Batibasaga were both having problems getting leave from work and an application was put in to their employees (the water department) to have them transferred to the Suva office so they could join training.

Then the sevens officials had to seek clearance from the authorities to use the Albert Park floodlights as one of their pool games was to be played at night.

The team management worked hard, both on and off the pitch, to ensure we were sending the best to So Kon Po.

Bosco was wary of the Kiwis and the Aussies.

"New Zealand and Australia have all the basics, but we are the holders and we'd like to keep it that way," he said.

Top two

As anticipated, Fiji breezed through to the final with New Zealand side Manawatu.

Hooker Ravonu and his men played some eye-catchy sevens rugby to come through with wins over some Asian sides and Pacific rivals Tonga and Western Samoa, who were making their debut in the tournament.

Manawatu had a tough semi-final with the Australian national side and that game reportedly took the sting out of the Kiwis.

Fiery half

The grand final was one of the best seen in those times and went right up to the wire.

New Zealand scored first, a converted try to Paul Broederlow and led 6-0.

The Fijians did not take long to get into their rhythm of "flair and skills".

Ratumuri was having a dream debut in Hong Kong. He burst upfield, drew the defence and sent an overhead pass for Ratu to go in under the sticks.

Halfback Batibasaga converted and it was 6-all.

Playmaker Senitiki Nasave stunned the opposition with some a smart move, kicking over the top for wing sensation Howard, who gathered and raced away to give Fiji a 10-6 lead at half-time.

Close call

Some good defensive work by Ratu and Ravonu denied the opposition a try but the game was still there for the taking in the second spell.

Just over a minute from full-time, all hope looked lost for us.

Manawatu struck through Alan Innes, but given the wet and atrocious underfoot conditions, the Kiwis missed the conversion.

It was locked up 10-all with only seconds remaining.

Straight from kick-off, we won the ball and it was spread out to Howard and the rest is history. We won 14-10 to become the first team to retain the Hong Kong Sevens crown in 1978.

Howard, despite carrying a niggling thigh injury, was the hero and Tikoisuva praised him saying "he would have run all over his opposite number" if he was fully fit.

We won but not before some hair-raising moments.

"I was very shaky right up to the final whistle," said Tikoisuva.

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