In 15s, you’d be hard-pressed to find any team with a superior record in a head-to-head with New Zealand. However, in rugby sevens, they are bested by long-time rivals Fiji, the first, and as yet, only Olympic champions in the shortened format of the game.
While the last encounter between the two proud rugby-playing nations – the Cup quarter-final against Canada in Vancouver in this season’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series – ended in a 17-5 win for the All Blacks Sevens, in the overall series stakes Fiji boast 56 wins to New Zealand’s 51.
Eight of the 10 Cup finals in the first world series were contested between the two, and they continued to dominate for some time. But New Zealand Sevens legend turned World Rugby commentator, Karl Tenana, says the rivalry pre-dates even the inaugural 1999-2000 campaign.
“It was long before that. Hong Kong was always the epitome of sevens and it was always Fiji and New Zealand in the finals, so I think that’s where the initial rivalry came from. Fiji were always awesome in Hong Kong for one reason or another,” he said.
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) May 14, 2020
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The ultimate testing ground
On a personal level, Tenana “loves” Fiji and is a regular visitor to the island as his wife Karen comes from Tailevu.
And the former New Zealand Sevens captain says Fiji brought the best out of him on the rugby field.
“It is the toughest place to go and play sevens, it means so much to them,” he pointed out.
“We’d always go over as an invitational team to the big tournament they held over there. A lot of it was village-based, but they always had the national team in it because it was a week before Hong Kong.
“My first taste of going was in ’96, and even though we weren’t an official New Zealand team, I think we were called the New Zealand Baa-Baas or whatever, we could never make the final, that’s how tough the competition was.
“People talked about how good Waisale Serevi was, and you’d see him on TV, but when you see it for real, there is no turning off the telly, you’ve got to deal with it.
“When you are up close and personal, you can get caught up with watching how they play, and I think that is something we learnt early on.
“We got dealt up a couple of times and we had to figure out how to stop them. Once you experience it for yourself and you’re able to get over the hump and turn it around, it is something you feel quite good about.
“For me, I knew if I could play well against Fiji then, hopefully, it would not only help my team, but it would also help me prove a point that I could match it with the best, and they were definitely the best when we were running around.”
The scorer of 113 tries for New Zealand in sevens, Tenana had a good record against Fiji.
He was injured for the 2002 Commonwealth Games victory against the Islanders in Manchester, but led them to victory the year before, in the final of the Hong Kong Sevens.
“We ended up beating them 29-5. That was probably the most dominant we’d been when I was playing against Fiji, and to do it in Hong Kong, where traditionally they are strong, was pretty special.
“Hong Kong was Serevi’s house, five-times player of the tournament. I was lucky enough to win that twice, but he got it five times, which shows how good he was.”
Sevens has become so much more competitive across the board since those early days on the circuit, but Tenana says the rivalry remains as strong as ever.
“I don’t think it’s been diluted whatsoever,” he said.
“Even in this year’s series, New Zealand were pretty dominant when they won in Hamilton, while Fiji were terrible.
“Then, the next week in Sydney, when Fiji played New Zealand, they went to another level and no-one was able to touch them.
“No matter where the two teams sit in the table at any one stage in the series, as soon as they play each other, they bring out of the best in each other, and that is never going to change.”
A new rivalry emerging
While New Zealand v Fiji remains the one in terms of rivalry, Tenana has been interested to see a new edge developing in games between Fiji and the USA.
“With the emergence of the USA team and what Mike Friday has done with them, and all the talk about Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, I think the Fijians have heard about that and seen that, and have tried to match that too with their play.
“When the USA won their home tournament a couple of seasons ago, they played Fiji in what was an unreal final. Perry Baker was off the hook and really won it for them.
“You can see it is starting to become a rivalry, and I think that’s really cool.”