Attention returns to HSBC SVNS 2024 this week, ahead of the inaugural tournament in Perth – but the centre of the sevens world seven days before the Western Australia party started was in Fiji, where the past, present and future collided at the Fiji Coral Coast Sevens in Sigatoka.

Some of the world’s best lined up against an array of local talent and legends of the game in an invitational tournament that has grown to be the premier sevens event in the South Pacific.

Now in its 12th year, the 2024 edition of the tournament, held in steaming conditions at Lawaqa Park featured 16 men’s teams, 16 youth men’s teams and 12 women’s sides playing across a three-day event. 

Teams on show included shadow Fiji men’s and women’s teams in, effectively, a final trial or hit-out before Perth; a New Zealand men’s development side featuring Sam Dickson, Brady Rush and Amanaki Nicole; and New Zealand club team Matakesi, founded by Sarah Hirini, which counted Olympic gold medallists Shiray Kaka and Theresa Setefano (nee Fitzpatrick) among its ranks.

Each year, the tournament appoints ambassadors – this year Dan Norton and Sir Gordon Tietjens joined a list that includes Waisale Serevi, Jonah Lomu and Bryan Habana. 

For the first time, every past ambassador selected a player to represent them in an All Star side, allowing for a second generation of players – Woody Gollings, Vili Satala Jnr and Renata Roberts-Tenana – to wear the names of their legendary fathers on their backs as part of a team that also included Semi Kunitani, Kyle Brown and Billy Odihambo. That’s the calibre of sevens legends this event attracts.

Take everything you’ve ever heard about sevens in Fiji, multiply it by all the local teams, add in a crowd that turns out in droves, watching and cheering for hours over three days, and sprinkle it with the number of selfies Norton, Serevi, Karl Tenana and Tietjens took, and you’ll get somewhere close to what the experience is like. 

The quality of sevens is exactly what you’d expect. It’s a beautiful combination of reckless abandon and mad-lib footy; players always taking on the outside and backing their pace without a second thought; chips over the top; keeping the ball alive; shots on and shoulders in; giant men and nimble women, athletes each and every one of them from Suva, Nadi, Lautoka and villages across the island, representing Army, Navy, their villages and their families. 

For visiting teams, it is a baptism of fire. Just ask the USA Falcons, coached by the great Zack Test with Adam Channel, Jack Wendling and Maceo Brown among those in the line-up. Beaten in all three pool matches on the main field they found themselves on the back pitch in the classification games, and to be frank, no one truly knows what goes on at the bottom of a ruck out there. 

But what those teams experience pales into comparison next to what players of the national teams go through. International teams can’t enter the competition, but Fiji and Fijiana used the event as an effective warm-up for Perth with the wider squads playing as the Fiji Barbarians and the women as Mount Masada. While the expectation grows on the women’s team, it’s at a stratospheric level for the men’s side in this Olympic year. 

If you think Fiji face pressure on the series, playing at home is next level and most surprisingly the vast majority of fans wanted to see them lose. They may be heroes when they play in the famed white jersey on the series or at the Olympics, but in the middle of Lawaqa Park, they were the villains.

Every score against them, every shot put on them, every mistake they made, the crowd roared for the team doing the damage. Witness Joseva Talaco, the national captain at the past two series events, breaking out 60 metres, hearing the crowd whoop as he got hammered on the 22. 

Everyone has an opinion on the current state of the national team, perceptions of what’s “going wrong” as the series title drought extends, whether the current crop of players are good enough and whether the coach is up to it. 

The fact the BaaBaas side, which saw the return of Josua Vakurinabila and Ponipate Loganimasi from injury, went on to win the competition by beating Saunaka in the final may keep those questions at bay – but only momentarily. They eat, sleep and breathe the game in Fiji and, therefore, they expect their team to win… as long as it’s not against the local sides. 

Sir Gordon observed that Fiji is the hardest place to play but the best place to learn. For those visiting teams with budding series players or some who are already there, it proved exactly that. There’s always talk that a series event must be played in Fiji one day but the beauty of a tournament like Coral Coast is in the local sides, the local flavour.

Yes, the star names add a huge amount but the lack of bells and whistles makes it a unique and special experience on and off the field.  

If sevens is the game they play in heaven, maybe heaven is right here, in Sigatoka.

By Rikki Swannell