x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Big three washed away on first day of internationals

Portugal and Canada are giant-killers, as Australia, England and South Africa all drop down to the second tier for today's action.

South Africa’s Cornal Hendricks is tackled by England’s Marcus Watson, but both teams failed to finish in the top two of their group. Jake Badger for The National
South Africa’s Cornal Hendricks is tackled by England’s Marcus Watson, but both teams failed to finish in the top two of their group. Jake Badger for The National

DUBAI // Rain in Dubai, New Zealand warning of the threat of Portugal in rugby, and South Africa, Australia and England all demoted to the second strata of international competition. The rugby world has finally gone mad.

On a day when the established elite of the sevens world series handled the deluge about as well as Dubai's roads, giant-killers from Portugal and Canada earned their moment in the big time.

A Portuguese side including a raft of teenagers - two who have just turned 18 - emerged from the pool of death after beating two of the most successful nations in the recent history of this tournament, England and South Africa.

Perhaps their mission has been accomplished already: they have earned the respect of New Zealand's multiple world-series winning coach Gordon Tietjens.

"Portugal are the big killers at the moment, they have upset everyone," said Tietjens, whose undefeated New Zealand side face Portugal in the quarter-finals today.

"I saw all of their games. They played very well against South Africa, only just lost to Samoa, and beat England.

"They are good rugby players, they all represent Portugal in XVs and a lot of them have been to a World Cup, so they know how to handle pressure. It is going to be tough."

With South Africa, Australia and England all crashing out, the draw looks to have opened up for New Zealand and Fiji.

For all of Tietjen's magnanimity, the All Blacks sevens side should have enough fire power to advance to the business stages, especially with Kurt Baker immediately back on song after his return to the fold.

Baker has only just arrived back in the abbreviated format, after touring the UK with the New Zealand Maori XVs team, and has a point to prove having been overlooked by Super rugby.

"I have always loved the Sevens side of things, I am looking forward to the World Series especially here in Dubai," Baker said.

"We are not as pleased as we would like to be at the end of Day 1 but we are through to the top side of the draw so hopefully we can lift our game."

The absence of South Africa from the knock-out stages of the cup competition is significant for those with a relatively long memory of Dubai Rugby Sevens.

The last time the tournament suffered such a torrent of rain as arrived yesterday, the Blitz Bokke were the winners, back at the old Exiles ground in Al Awir in 2006.

Paul Treu, the South Africa coach, admitted he had fleetingly revisited that memory at the start of the competition, but the day ended as miserably for them as the prevailing weather.

"You always think about positive memories and try and draw on them, but even from the start in the first game we weren't as clinical as I'd have liked," Treu said.

"There is nothing you can say after a disappointing day like that.

"We weren't at our best, we just have to go back and see how many positive points we can take from Day 2 to take to our tournament next week in Port Elizabeth. It is going to be difficult with England and Australia in there, too."

Although Fiji, who meet France in the next phase, and New Zealand stand out among the sides who are left standing, a new name could yet be inscribed on the Emirates International Trophy.

Samoa meet Wales in a repeat of the 2009 Sevens World Cup final here. In the other encounter in the last eight, a Kenya side revitalised under the leadership of new coach Mike Friday meet Canada.

"It is really special, we haven't had too many of these so we will cherish it and look forward to Day 2," said Nanyak Dala, the Canada captain.

"Now that we are back as a core team we are working hard to show what we can do when we get a chance to get on the circuit.

"We are going to be giving it a go on Day 2, playing hard and hopefully upsetting a lot more teams."

Lightning strikes twice for England

England’s woeful start to the 2012/13 World Series continued yesterday as indiscipline, serious injury, and even the weather conspired against them as they surrendered the Emirates International Trophy.

As a spectacular lightning storm approached the Sevens, England were knocked out of the main competition when they lost 22-21 to Portugal.

It was a miserable day for the defending champions.

First Rob Vickerman, their captain, was suspended for three games for a high tackle in their morning defeat to South Africa.

Then Tom Mitchell suffered a broken leg in the second match against Samoa, before Portugal confirmed their demise with a controversial penalty kick, awarded for foul play by Dan Norton.

It was the second tournament in succession where England have failed to make the quarter-finals of the top-tier competition.

“We should have started better and we can’t blame anyone else,” said Ben Ryan, the England coach.

“It is not a refereeing decision, or a yellow card, it is a collective 14 minutes where Portugal got too many points that we gave them.”

England still had chances to win even after Pedro Leal had given Portugal a one-point lead just before the final hooter sounded.

Despite being down to six men, they opted to run a centrally positioned penalty of their own rather than take a shot at goal.

“The players make decisions, I’m not a robot coach,” Ryan said. “If the [kicker, Dan Bibby] was looking up and asking what to do, you think he is probably not confident of knocking it over.

“We had chances after that, the penalty move worked well. I could be smiling and saying, with a man down we scored in the corner to win it. It is a game of inches.”

Tomaz Morais, the Portugal coach, said two wins from the “pool of death” was due reward for their hard work over the past six weeks.

“We know every game is very competitive in the world series now,” said Morais, whose side had earlier beaten South Africa, meaning the unheralded European side defeated the two most recent winners of the Sevens.

“We were not happy with our performance in Australia, so we worked very hard and we knew we would stay competitive in every game here.

“Sometimes the game goes your way and that was what happened for us.”

Friday feeling proud as his Kenya side progresses

Mike Friday, the former England sevens coach, earned some personal bragging rights when his Kenya side advanced at the expense of Scotland, who are coached by his former assistant.

Phil Greening was Friday’s deputy when England won back-to-back Dubai titles at the old Exiles ground in Al Awir in 2004 and 2005.

Both left the coaching sphere of the international circuit in 2006, but they returned to take charge of rival sides at the start of this season.

“Me and [Greening] are very, very competitive,” Friday said after a 12-5 win over Scotland and a 10-7 success over Spain saw his side through to the cup knock-out stage.

“We have worked together for many years, I was coaching him when he first played for England sevens, then he became my assistant.

“We go back a long way and we are fiercely competitive with each other.

“It was a nice one not to lose, and then have the bragging rights, because [Greening] is a nightmare when he has the bragging rights.”

Kenya advanced as runners up behind Fiji, the current series leaders, from Pool A. “These players have made a lot of sacrificed to get here and it is paying dividends,” Friday said.

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