The second day of the World Cup Sevens saw temperatures once again rise above 30c but there was no perceptible increase in the number of spectators. Inevitably questions were being asked if this was the right country to stage the Sevens World Cup finals although everyone seemed to agree that the game needs to be showcased in developing rugby nations. The crowds barely went above 5000 on day two and were little better on day three, with the global recession and many potential supporters from the UK following the Lions instead being possible factors for fewer visiting fans.
In Moscow I only saw one reference to the event, a small poster on a tourist bus, but even this didn’t mention the dates or the venue. However at the magnificent Olympic complex there was much more rugby on offer than that at the Luzhniki stadium. The opening rounds of the women’s competition were in a second stadium about fifteen minutes walk away and after watching the England men comfortably despatch Hong Kong we made our way over. En route we saw at least four other competitions being played on temporary rugby pitches; various youth age groups, an adult men’s tournament, and a veterans 10s event. It was clear that the Russian rugby and sport authorities were trying to open the World Cup experience to as many of their players as possible.
We arrived in time to see England Women play the diminutive Japan side and they looked in good form winning easily and qualifying for the quarter finals with one game to play. The small Gorodok arena was almost full with around 1500 people and the atmosphere was far better that that at the vast 80,000 seat main stadium.
On the way back we had a look around the complex and wondered at both its size and its layout. The stadium is in the the centre with symmetrical avenues and structures that house the Olympic pool, the gymnastics and weightlifting arena and a host of other sporting venues nestling within a loop of the River Moscow. Although they were over 30 years old they had been built in a classic style that hadn’t dated and they had obviously bee well-maintained. I would be delighted if the London Olympic complex at Stratford looked half as good in 2045!
Back at the main arena we had been lucky enough to be given access to one of the VIP areas where we were delighted to find that cold beer was available along with plenty of traditional Russian fare. But that didn’t distract us too much from watching some very good sevens rugby with one of the highlights being USA leading New Zealand 19-5 in the second half before succumbing 19-26.
I was interested to see how Zimbabwe and Tunisia got on having watched them qualify in Morocco last year at the expense of Nigeria and it was Tunisia who provided one of the shocks of the tournament beating Spain 26-24. Zimbabwe gave Samoa a scare, eventually losing 26-17 but they did manage a victory against Philippines.
There was another surprise in England’s pool when Portugal won 17-10 against Argentina meaning England could potentially afford a small defeat against the South Americans and still qualify. The game started well for England with two first half tries giving them a 14-0 lead, but Argentina started to get more of the ball scoring two tries in return, one unconverted, providing a nail-biting last two minutes. However England held on to win 14-12 and topped their pool undefeated.
The last game of the day was England women against Russia and although the crowd was sparse the home support made a lot of noise for their team. They responded by playing with passion and purpose equalling England’s three tries but crucially converting one to England’s none, so Russia won 17-15 against one of the pre-tournament favourites.
After the matches were over for the day we ran into some players from Moscow Dragons, the local team made up of Russians and ex-pats who took us to Katie O’Sheas, the inevitable Irish Bar in downtown Moscow adorned with various shirts and other rugby memorabilia. The evening was a bit of a haze but we eventually got back to our hotel in the small hours.
Not surprisingly I didn’t feel at my greatest the next morning so we didn’t arrive at the stadium until midday but in plenty of time for the quarter-finals. England Women had paid the price for the defeat against Russia by being drawn against New Zealand and they were no match for the eventual world champions losing 7-24.
The men’s quarter-final games were all thrilling. Fiji’s match against South Africa was full of aggression and kept everyone on the edge of their seats with Fiji winning through 12-10. New Zealand’s victory over Wales was more straightforward and when England stormed into a 21-0 half-time lead over Australia that looked like it was all over. But where England had all the possession and the bounce of the ball going their way in the first half, the second half saw Australia have the same fortune and sore three tries, two unconverted bringing them to 21-17 and a very tense last two minutes. But England defended brilliantly and got through to the semi-finals.
There they would play the winner of France v Kenya which was the game of the day as far as the men were concerned. The French played out of their skins and came from behind to level the scores at 12-12 taking the game into extra time. Kenya dominated but the French had their chances to break away only to be brought down by the chasing Kenyans. Eventually the Kenyans scored the sudden death try for victory leaving French players and supporters distraught and in tears.
We went over to the women’s competition to see England win through to the Plate final but there were ominous rumbles of thunder and dark clouds over to the west. We returned for the first semi-final between New Zealand and Fiji and with the All Blacks 7-0 up, there was an almighty crack of thunder and the heavens opened. The players were taken from the field for their own safety and the rest of us sat and watched the torrential downpour.
We retired to the hospitality area where we chatted with a couple of young women from Coventry University. They were part of a group of forty Sports & Events Management students who were helping out at the World Cup, some on the medical team providing sports massages for the players and others on the technical team, counting substitutions and getting teams ready for their games on time. Their flights and accommodation had been provided but they had to fend for themselves when it came to food and drink. Nevertheless the experience they were getting must have been invaluable.
After a hour or so of monsoon-like rain it eased enough for play to recommence. The conditions were very difficult although there were some dramatic pictures as players slid with plumes of water coming up around them. New Zealand duly Fiji 17-0 and it was England’s turn against Kenya. New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens sat in the stands to watch the game and take some notes while England utilised the tactic of kicking deep and letting Kenya come to them. It worked in that it was unlikely that the African players had played very much in conditions like these and a 12-5 victory saw England into their first Sevens World Cup final since they won in 1993.
The Bowl and Plate finals for men and women (England lost to Australia) had to be played first all contributing to turning parts of the pitch into a quagmire before New Zealand and England took to the pitch after 10pm. Both teams used the same kicking tactics but New Zealand did it better, forcing England on to the back foot. Although England will have been disappointed with their play, they will admit that New Zealand played superbly and deserved to 33-0 margin of victory and to lift the Melrose Cup.
There was little time to enjoy the celebrations as we had to rush back to the hotel to get changed before the after-tournament banquet. We arrived at the huge venue where all forty teams had tables and with coaches, managers and other support and event staff there must have been close to 1000 people. Sevens Player of the Year awards (men and women) both went to New Zealanders and after the closing speeches the players partied into the night.
We slipped away about 2am but we met the England teams the next day at a reception held by the British Ambassador and we had the chance to find out their thoughts about the past week. Both teams were still a bit down, the women knowing that they had underperformed and the men finding some solace in reaching the final and knowing that they had lost to a very good side. The experience of playing in a mainly empty stadium was a little strange but didn’t detract from the fact they were competing in the World Cup finals. This Russian hosts were very welcoming and accommodating, doing everything they could to give a good impression of Moscow which was very much appreciated by the players.
As for the IRB taking the finals to Russia the verdict is a mixed one as to its success. The venues and organisation were first class, as was the support from the Moscow players and teams. But in terms of attracting the Russian public it can only be seen as a failure. To see one of the iconic stadiums of the world not even one-tenth full must have been an embarrassment to the IRB and the Russian organisers and they will have to choose the venue for 2018 carefully. The early favourite is the USA, probably California, and they are sure to put on a good show, but success will be crucial if Sevens is to become a truly global sport.
(I am writing this while still in Moscow and although there are a few pictures published here I will be uploading lots more in the next few days and putting links on this blog)