On 2 December, 1999 the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series was born in Dubai.
Fittingly, current men’s Series leaders New Zealand had the honour of competing in the very first match and former sevens star turned World Rugby commentator Karl Te Nana scored in a 14-0 win against Tonga.
To this day, Te Nana remembers the thrill of being involved from the very first blast of Australian referee George Ayoub’s whistle.
“When the Series first launched, there was so much excitement amongst all the countries to have an organised series created,” he said.
“The chance to continuously match yourself against the best in the world in 10 tournaments was a real new and fresh concept that both players and fans gravitated to.”
Dubai is one of the two original venues still used to this day (Hong Kong is the other) and was also the location for the opening tournament when the women’s Series was launched in 2012-13.
For Te Nana, it was a natural choice as the launchpad for the Series because it was already a renowned sevens destination.
“The first tournament in Dubai was always a vibe because of its already established history. It was like playing in a major at golf,” he said.
“So when New Zealand had the honour to play the first game of the Series against Tonga, we as a team knew the significance of that, and for me to score the first try ever on the World Sevens Series, at the time I didn't take much notice but now as I look back, I'm very proud of that moment.”
New Zealand went on to be crowned champions in that first tournament in Dubai following a 38-14 win over Fiji, another of the sport’s powerhouses long before the Series was initiated.
A fierce rivalry had already developed between the countries from the first two editions of Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1993 and 1997 and that was translated into the Series.
Those two countries claimed all the titles on offer between them throughout the inaugural Series and, by the end of it all, the All Blacks Sevens came out on top in the final standings by just six points.
It was the first of six consecutive overall Series titles for New Zealand, who won just over half (26) of the first 50 tournaments played.
Of the 30 different nations that have played and scored in the Series, New Zealand and Fiji are to date the only ones to reach 3,000 points.
Fiji became Series champions for the first time in 2005-06 but it was still New Zealand who largely held the upper hand as the Series continued to grow, their run of seven consecutive tournament wins between London in 2007 to Hong Kong the following year being a record that still exists today.
2009 was not only a significant year for sevens in terms of it winning the vote to become an Olympic sport but it also marked the emergence of South Africa as a threat to New Zealand and Fiji, the Blitzboks claiming the first of their four Series titles that year.
Samoa threw their hat into the ring by taking the next title in 2010 and England were always a threat with record Series points scorer Ben Gollings dictating play. But for the most part, it was New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa who continued to fight it out for top honours.
The next 11 Series titles, from 2011 to 2021, were shared by the southern hemisphere trio with New Zealand claiming five, and Fiji and South Africa three apiece, the latter benefitting from the absence of their main rivals due to COVID-19 in their 2021 Series win.
For a 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, that trio and England, Samoa, Argentina, Australia and France were the only teams to win a tournament in the Series.
But as sevens’ Olympics debut in Rio in 2016 drew ever closer new teams came to the fore with the USA enjoying the first of their three tournament successes in London in the 2014-15 Series. Over the next two years, they were joined by Scotland and Canada in adding their names to the roll of honour.
In total, 12 different teams have now won a tournament in the Series.
With the general competitiveness of sevens going up several notches following the sport’s inclusion in the Olympic Games, New Zealand’s almost total dominance from those early years will be very hard to replicate.
But while Australia became the first new overall Series winner in 12 years in 2022, the All Blacks Sevens remain the team to beat in most people’s eyes.
Their overall tally of 64 tournament wins, and 100-plus final appearances, from the 199 men’s tournaments played to date easily eclipses what any of the other teams can muster.
Fiji are next best with 44 tournament wins and South Africa are third on 40.
A showcase for skills
Once considered a means of improving fitness for 15s or for an end-of-season jamboree, sevens has become huge in its own right and the Series has played a big part in its evolution into an Olympic sport that helps spread the rugby gospel far and wide.
Ever-evolving, the Series will be remodelled next year and will include seven festival-style events, in seven iconic global destinations, across seven months, featuring the 12 best men’s and women’s teams in the world.
Te Nana was one of the first to leave his mark on the Series and is still taken aback by how big and far-reaching it has become.
“It's amazing how from the inception to what the beast of a product and spectacle the sevens has become. It is just amazing,” he said.
“World Rugby have done a fantastic job creating a platform for men’s and women’s teams and athletes to thrive and showcase their abilities to help connect, inspire and bring joy to audiences across the globe.”