Day Two of the Sevens in Rabat saw the sun shine for the first time on this trip but there was more than a little confusion as the clocks had gone back overnight in Morocco but nobody had told us! At least it meant we were left with an extra hour which we used to explore the Kasbah and walk through the old town.
When we got to the stadium the earlier games were well underway and I was curious to see how the Uganda Lady Cranes got on after my prediction that they would be overall winners. Their semi-final was against Tunisia who had easily the best woman player and an exciting game saw Uganda go down by three tries to two. Tunisia went on to play Kenya in the final for the sole World Cup qualifying place on offer and despite losing to them in the pool stage, Tunisia dominated to take the victory and qualify for the World Cup Finals the Moscow
The first men’s semi-final was between Madagascar and Tunisia. Tunisia were player for player much bigger and they used this to their advantage denying Madagascar possession and going through to the final to join their female counterparts in Moscow next year.
Next up was Nigeria against tournament favourites Zimbabwe. The southern Africa side had looked very good in the pool stages and Nigeria knew that they would have a tough task. Zimbabwe kicked off and Nigeria retained possession well. not allowing Zimbabwe a touch of the ball for the first two minutes of the game which ended with a kick through, chased and grounded over the line by Temi Okenla and converted by Ari Goualin for a 7-0 lead.
Nigeria restarted and won the ball from the kick-off to keep the pressure on Zimbabwe, but possession was turned over and they showed why they were favourites with fast hands and direct running to level the scores, and then they scored a second converted try for to leave Nigeria trailing 7-14 at half time.
Zimbabwe dominated at the start of the second half going further ahead with the try of the game, taking play down the left then swinging the ball right drawing the defence before passing the ball through fast hands back to the right where the inevitable gap had appeared. Despite being 7-19 down the Nigerian players showed tremendous character and took play into Zimbabwe’s half, keeping the ball and waiting for an opportunity to appear. Eventually it game with David Akinluyi crashing over, Goualin’s successful conversion bringing Nigeria to within five points.
Zimbabwe were clearly unsettled not having expected to deal with such a physical side that could also pass and run at speed. Nigeria wrestled possession away and again went on the attack, another kick-through causing panic in the Zimbabwe defence who were forced to carry over for a five metre scrum. With one minute left on the clock Nigeria had one chance to score an unexpected victory and book their place in the World Cup Finals in Moscow next year. This is where the Zimbabweans showed their greater experience wheeling the scrum for the ball to pop out. It was still a lottery who would pounce on it but the Zimbabwe scrum-half reacted quicker to get the ball to his backs who kicked upfield.
There was one final scrum which again went Zimbabwe’s way for the ball to be kicked into touch to break Nigerian hearts. Disappointed though they were, the Nigerian Black Stallions knew they had surpassed all expectations and but for small margins could have come out winners.
The management team now had their work cut out to get the players ready mentally for the Plate final against Madagascar to whom they had lost in their first game of the tournament. The Nigerian were physically much bigger than the Madagascans, in fact they were bigger than any team there, but their opponents had shown that they were fast, nimble and very dangerous on the counterattack.
Nigeria had seen how Tunisia had used their superior size to overcome Madagascar and they used a similar game plan, using Joe Mbu. Rob Worrincy and CJ Osazuwa to suck in two or three defenders while keeping on their feet to pass to supporting players. This tactic paid early dividends with an unconverted try for Kene Ejikeme after two minutes. Madagascar had won all their pool games the previous day and hit back immediately scoring under the posts for a 5-7 lead. Joe Mbu was yellow carded which put Nigeria under pressure but they managed to keep Madagascar at bay until he returned and there were no further scores before half time.
Reminders from the coaches about the importance of keeping possession and the value of their size advantage saw Nigeria once again show great strength of character to patiently stick to their game plan. The Madagascans used what little possession they had well and scored an unconverted try to put Nigeria further behind at 5-12 but the big guys made Madagascar commit at least two players to every tackle while the pace and guile of Nuhu Ibrahim and Will Sharpe their defence. It was only a matter of time before a try came for Osazuwa, converted by Ejikeme to level the scores, and while the Madagascans continued to be out-muscled they couldn’t prevent Ejikeme going over for his second try and Nigeria’s third, giving them a 19-12 win and the Plate trophy.
The final was a one-sided affair with Zimbabwe dominating Tunisia and winning 31-7, so making even more agonising the narrow margin of defeat in the semi-final. But Rugby being Rugby and Africa being Africa, once the presentations at the ground were over the teams all mixed together, men and women talking, laughing, dancing and celebrating along with the schoolchildren who had being demonstrating mini-rugby in the breaks.
The post tournament dinner was back at the Institut de Sport where all the teams were billeted, and once the formalities were over it was back to partying first with a Moroccan band of drummers then outside with the Nigerian men and Ugandan women leading the way. I left at that stage to go back with an eccentric taxi-driver who took us to Rabat but refused to drop us back at our accommodation leaving us with a mile long walk through the deserted medina old town.
Writing this on the plane from Casablanca to Heathrow I can reflect on a very busy but very enjoyable four days in Morocco. Many of the Nigerian squad are on the same flight and they can be justifiably proud of what they achieved. putting Nigeria Rugby on the map as a force to be reckoned with the future
Click to view link to pictures from the day