As a member of the once all-conquering New Zealand men’s sevens team, Karl Tenana was part of rugby royalty but nothing, he says, compares to meeting a real-life monarch in Manchester in 2002.
A lunch date with Her Majesty the Queen ranks as the former international turned TV commentator’s favourite Commonwealth Games moment, and not just because the food was better than normal!
“I remember turning around and, lo and behold, she was sitting behind us. I wondered why we didn’t have the usual boiled chicken, the food was actually quite nice," he said jokingly.
“To be with royalty at any stage of your life is quite unique but to be able to do that in a sporting sense is especially cool. There were lots of unique instances like that, that help set the Commonwealth Games apart from other tournaments.”
Tenana’s New Zealand team were a world apart from the opposition in Manchester as they swept to the gold medal for a second time, winning all six games and inflicting an eye-catching 33-15 defeat on Fiji in the final.
“Winning the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games meant everything to me. At the time, it was the pinnacle of the sport because rugby sevens wasn’t in the Olympic Games then," he said.
“Personally, I was under an injury cloud at the time and I had to work so hard to get there. So, to make the team and then win the gold medal against our arch rivals Fiji on English soil is something I’ll always cherish.”
Tenana was an established sevens international at the time and the New Zealand squad was laden with talent including 1998 gold medallists, Eric Rush and Bruce Reihana.
"Our sevens squad was like a family, we enjoyed each other’s company on and off the field and there was a special vibe. I think that was one of the reasons why we had such a strong history in the Commonwealth Games," he explained.
Tenana also relished rubbing shoulders with household names from other sports during his one and only Commonwealth Games, the 1998 tournament having come just too soon in his fledgling career.
“You get to walk around with the Frankie Fredericks of this world and meet other people you’d only ever seen on TV," he said.
“As rugby players, it is sometimes easy to get caught up in that little bubble, so it was nice to be able to go out and support other teams and mix and mingle.”
For the first time in Commonwealth Games history, a women’s competition will be held alongside the men’s on the Gold Coast and Tenana believes his country will be celebrating a unique double soon.
“The Aussie girls are obviously Olympic champions and will want to win on home soil, but the Kiwis will come over and have something to say about that, as will a lot of other teams. On the men’s side, it is so competitive as well.
“But I’ve got to go with history. New Zealand has only lost one game in 20 years at the Commonwealth Games, so I am sure they are going to be there or thereabouts. I’m going to go with the Kiwis on both sides of the coin.”
Regardless of the outcome, Tenana is confident the addition of the women’s competition will be a major hit.
“The introduction of a women’s competition for the first time ever is totally special and something that is going to set this tournament apart. It is hugely significant and will put rugby sevens onto another stratosphere.
“The growth on that side of the game of sevens has been absolutely huge. These girls are showing they are up there with the boys and, in some cases, have overtaken them with their skills and what have you.
“There is a different vibe to the whole sevens arena and what they brought to the Olympics I am sure they will bring to the Commonwealth Games as well.
“There are going to be plenty of outstanding performances across the board, no doubt, and with the tournament being in one of the best spots in Australia, with the beach right there, I’m sure the crowds will come in. It should be a lot of fun.”
The women's event gets the Commonwealth Games rugby sevens programme underway at 16:31 local time (GMT+10) on Friday at Robina Stadium. View the fixtures here.