. For a record fifth time in a row.
“That’s a huge statement from a young group of players,” said coach Gareth Baber after they outmuscled a resilient France 21-7.
Baber had brought a squad that had – like all Fijians – grown up immersed in the history of the Hong Kong leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, and in stories of the heroes from their islands who had lifted the Cup 18 times. They went out and made that 19 (including two World Cups).
“There wasn’t too much between us and France,” said Baber. “A lot of it comes down to belief and endeavour. There was eight players in our squad that have never been here before. It’s a huge achievement and perhaps I didn’t pay them enough credit coming in, now that we’re standing here holding the Cup.”
What is there left to say about Jerry Tuwai. He is the only player to have been a continuous part of that record five titles and, said Baber, the glue that keep everything together this year.
“He’s four players on a field, isn’t he,” said Baber.
“He’s a little man but the work he can do around the field, the maturity and the decision making. Last year people were calling for his head at times and it just leaves me flabbergasted that anybody should ever have a theory like that on a player that can achieve such beautiful things on a rugby field. He’s such a beautiful man as well. He instils humility in the squad and helps them just do what they have got to do.”
“I’m speechless,” said Tuwai. “To play with such amazing talent, you know they carried me through. I am just so blessed.”
The tries for Fiji came through feats of pure strength – as when Aminiasi Tuimaba was brought down near the line and still found some way to hold balance and offload to Vilimoni Botitu to score. Tuimaba crossed the line twice himself before collecting his trophy for player of the final, which he duly dropped. It was the only time anything had slipped through his hands all week.
There had been surprises all Sunday long, as Hong Kong lifted the spirits of 40,000 with their run to the World Series Qualifier final.
France had never before made a Hong Kong final and, before the last tournament in Vancouver, had not made a World Series final since 2012. Now it’s two finals in a row as they set their sights on qualification for the Tokyo Olympics next year.
Coach Jerome Daret revealed afterwards that, as he pulls an enigmatic squad together and tries to make them find consistency, he has been leaning on no less an expert than the first man to win Olympic sevens gold as a coach – Englishman and former Fiji mentor Ben Ryan.
“But he loves Fiji too much to have given us any secrets,” said Daret. “He has just been helping us organise ourselves. We have made two finals now and we have confidence. We added consistency this time. The spirit is good and we are in good minds for the future. We are building a group and we want to make it Tokyo.”
There had also been a resurrection, of sorts, of a USA team that had squeaked through to the Cup after only winning one pool game. Coach Mike Friday had a quiet word on Saturday night, and it worked, as the Americans only found the rampant Fijians too good come Sunday, losing their semi-final 28-19 before overpowering Samoa 22-10 in the play-off for third. All that with the likes of Madison Hughes and Folau Niua falling to injury.
“There are moments that are sometimes beyond your control. That’s life,” said Friday. “We bounced back. The rugby gods smiled on us. We didn’t deserve to be here today. But sometimes it’s about dealing with adversity.
“It’s about how you deal with a chance when you are given it. We showed the real USA today. For our young boys to come in and take on and do a job was huge. They stuck in for one another and they showed the grit required to get the job done.”
By finishing third, the USA Eagles held on to the World Series lead, now on 130 points, in front of the surging Fijians (123) and New Zealand (118). Holding on in fourth, and the final automatic qualifying spot for next year’s Olympics, are South Africa (99), with England (90) breathing down their necks.
Leave it to Tuwai to sum up a weekend that delivered on all promises, and offers even more in store when we get to 2020, what with Tokyo then looming and Hong Kong for the first time also hosting a round of the HSBC Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series.
‘It’s the only tournament we know in Fiji,” said Tuwai. “To come here and win is just something else. Every Fijian who comes here knows just how special it is.”