Both teams may be competing at the Dubai Sevens for their respective charities, but that was not going to dim the rivalry between the French and English players.
Dubai Rugby Sevens: CNCF win Vets battle with Pirates as competitive fire still burns deep inside Serge Betsen
Nine in the morning on a pitch on the furthest periphery of the Dubai Rugby Sevens grounds. The easy listening strains of Jason Mraz wafting gently out of the public address system.
Two teams representing charities who try to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable children in impoverished states.
Twenty veteran players who have been there, done that, and got the international caps. Fifteen minutes later, a couple of them are seen talking to a man dressed as a six-foot tall banana.
And in between? Carnage. Four yellow cards, a red, and one big melee. Turns out, the gilded former international stars of Christina Noble Children’s Foundation and Serge Betsen Academy Pirates cannot let go of that competitive fire after all.
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Spectators are often witness to some peculiar things at the Dubai Sevens. The vision of Betsen, fearsome destroyer of fly-halves in a celebrated 63-cap career for France bopping and singing along to I’m Yours by Jason Mraz in the warm ups will be seared into the mind’s eye of anyone who saw it.
Moments later, he was tearing into tackles with the sort of abandon that characterised one of the great careers among French forwards.
Not long after kick-off he was the first of many to receive a card, in his case for throwing the ball away in protest at a decision that went against the Pirates.
“It is part of me, part of us, because we played to a very high level, and when we go onto the field we want to win – but win with fairness and positivity,” Betsen said.
“It is important to respect our opponent. But this was the old rivalry between England and France.
“A lot of them are English players, and we obviously are from France. The contest was really hard, and at the end it was really positive, as always with rugby.”
CNCF were the eventual winners, 21-7, even though they ended the 10-a-side game with just nine players. Their roll call of try scorers is evidence of the fact the charity have an unrivalled network of contacts.
Ben Gollings, the leading point scorer in the history of the World Sevens Series, scored the first, following a sweet interchange of passes with Ceri Sweeney, the former Wales fly-half, and Iain Balshaw, who was a World Cup-winner with England in 2003.
Olly Barkley, the 23-cap former England back, dotted down the second, and former British & Irish Lions wing Dafydd James got the third.
Betsen was livid to be on the losing team, but is still grateful to be here. The Pirates team chose his charity to support via their appearance for a second year in the International Vets tournament at the Sevens.
“I am privileged to be with them for the first time and I am really glad to be here,” Betsen said. “The aim of my charity is to help underprivileged kids back in Cameroon, where I am originally from, through rugby.
“We pay the scholarships of the kids we are looking after, and helping them with healthcare and medication when they need it, and we introduce them to rugby which should benefit both their education and health.”
The Pirates are represented by a number of former France internationals besides Betsen, as well as a prop who played international representative rugby for the Arabian Gulf.
Manu Barry left the region to return to France 10 years ago, having played in Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi during a decade in the Gulf. He was central to recruiting Betsen this year.
“I think these boys [CNCF] were happy to see Serge,” Barry said. “They know him, they love each other, and they couldn’t keep their hands off him. I think the referee was running out of cards.
“We understood the concept of trying to raise money for charity, and we are so, so proud to be associated with the Serge Betsen Academy.
“The guys said yes immediately, which was fantastic. We managed to lure him into coming with us this year.”
The Pirates will play in the plate quarter final on Pitch 7 at 12.20pm on Friday. CNCF continue their bid to regain their title when they play the trophy quarter final against Racing Foundation at 12.40pm on Pitch 6.