By Nigel Starmer-Smith
It all began in 1999 - eight seasons ago, 70 tournaments, and more matches played than I can count! OK, well I think it's 3,171 altogether. The IRB Sevens World Series, inaugurated in Dubai on 2 December of that year and ushered in by the chairman of the International Rugby Board Vernon Pugh with the words, "this competition has set in place another important element in the IRB’s drive to establish rugby as a truly global sport, one with widespread visibility and steadily improving standards of athletic excellence."
The desert sands of Dubai, then, played host to that first official IRB Sevens tournament. The preceding years had unveiled a new popularity for Sevens, with the thrilling spectacle of the World Cup and Commonwealth Games Sevens together with the unofficial circuit that was based on the enthusiasm of principally the Southern Hemisphere Unions, with the catalyst undoubtedly the success of the landmark event, the Hong Kong Sevens.
The demand and opportunity for a Sevens circuit was ripe, although until the commitment of the IRB, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa had never previously been involved in hosting any of the established international Sevens events. So with the IRB on board a formalised structure and laws system was put in place and financial assistance provided for the competing nations.
There was, however, to be no surprise: New Zealand and Fiji were to continue their supremacy of those earlier years - Fiji the reigning World Champions and Hong Kong winners for the three preceding years, New Zealand masters of the Commonwealth Games and unofficial champions of the Sevens circuit. In fact only twice in that first season did anyone else get a look-in on a final of the 10-event series.
Already the specialist Sevens stars were familiar names. For New Zealand Karl Te Nana and Christian Cullen, Mils Muliaina and Dallas Seymour, Jonah Lomu and Eric Rush, all pace and expertise, and already well-versed in the art of Sevens by the man who took charge in 1994, refined the art of playing and who still leads the world in the Sevens coaching field, Gordon Tietjens.
For Fiji Waisale Serevi was already a legend of the game and little did we realise then for how many more years he was to remain as the greatest star in the Sevens firmament. Alongside him another giant of the game Filimoni Delasau, who still holds the record for scoring 6 tries in one game, and the formidable presence of Marika Vunibaka, Mesake Rasari, Fero Lasagavibau and Apolosi Satala.
In Dubai few upsets were anticipated and few came, although Fred Asselin, Shane Thompson and Winston Stanley were a part of the Canadian squad that so nearly stopped New Zealand in their tracks in that very first event, going down19-21 in the first quarter-final. The favourites recovered and were eventually untroubled in a final that was marred by the sending-off of two Fijians - not surprisingly young Orene Ai'i scored four tries! Thereafter the fortunes of the fancied two fluctuated by the tournament as Fiji won in Stellenbosch, New Zealand in Punta del Este and Fiji in Mar del Plata and Wellington.
But back at home for Fiji the coin reversed and New Zealand avenged their home defeat. It was down to the wire as Australia - led by John Isaac with Ryan Constable and Peter Miller alongside and Glen Ella as coach - made the final at New Zealand's expense in Brisbane, New Zealand won Hong Kong, Fiji in Tokyo.
So it was to prove a dramatic finale to this first-ever series. A six-month title chase and, as Eric Rush's side entered the final tournament, they knew the odds were stacked against them. A semi-final place was enough to assure Fiji of the Champion title. However it was Argentina who proved to be the heart-breakers for Fiji, beating Serevi's side 35-21 in the quarter-finals - a Pumas squad with no great Sevens pedigree to that point, but here reaching a first-ever semi-final after a run of four Plate titles in the previous five tournaments.
So it was that, inspired by Fiji's shock exit, New Zealand romped home to take the Paris title and the Overall IRB Sevens Series Championship, beating Australia in the semis before crushing South Africa 69-10 in the final. It was to be a long wait before Fiji came that close again to winning the coveted crown. The inaugural series had set the standard - the IRB Sevens was well and truly launched!