DUBAI // When the 2016 Dubai Rugby Sevens kicks off on Thursday, it will be 10 years to the day since Dan Carter was a waterboy for a team in the invitational tournament.
Yep, that Dan Carter. The 112-cap All Black, British & Irish Lions-slayer, and World Cup-winner. The all-time great fly-half who was, at that time, just ending the first of his three reigns as world player of the year.
And there he was, handing out the isotonics for a charity team made up of raw, aspiring professionals, and talented amateurs, playing in one of Dubai’s social tournaments.
If that was not surreal enough, Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina, his All Blacks colleagues, were sat in the scaffolding stands at the old Dubai Exiles ground, cheering on the players — and jeering their teammate.
The New Zealanders were en route back home from their grand slam tour of the northern hemisphere when they dropped in on the Middle East’s biggest rugby festival.
So far, so sensible. How Carter ended up then being the drinks carrier for Stefan’s BHF, a side raising awareness of the British Heart Foundation, in the International Invitational tournament, is more tenuous.
The charity team was (and still is — they will be playing again at the Sevens next weekend) run by Jo Czerpak, an Abu Dhabi-based schoolteacher, in honour of his late father Stefan.
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He had called in a favour from a friend and former rugby teammate, Nick Drake, who was the head of global rugby for adidas, the kit suppliers for the All Blacks. That extended to sponsorship of the team, for basics such as covering costs for kit. Or so Czerpak thought.
“Nick jokingly said, ‘I’ll get Dan Carter — DC as he called him — to come and be our waterboy’,” said Czerpak, who teaches at British School Al Khubairat in the capital.
“We were like, ‘Oh yeah, right, whatever.’ Drakey is the sort of guy who says something like that really casually, then Jonah Lomu emerges from round the corner, and he’s like, ‘Alright, Jonah?’
“All the rugby players knew him as ‘The Adidas Man’. That is how it happened. One minute we were all there, the next he was running the water onto the pitch. I still pinch myself that it actually happened, but it did.”
Having the world’s premier rugby player at his beck and call was realistically a long way beyond the job description of the representative of a kit supplier. But Drake had managed to coax Carter into the waterboy role after making a deal with him.
“I can’t quite remember what the agreement was about, but I think I had to beat Dan in a race over 40 metres,” Drake said. “He came to support the BHF team playing at the Dubai Sevens and enjoy some down time.”
It is no surprise Drake had the sort of turn of pace that might have surprised Carter into losing the race. He had a career of some note in rugby himself, playing for London Irish and England sevens.
Stefan Czerpak had coached both him and son Jo, as well as a host of future England internationals, before his premature death.
“Jo is a close friend and his father was very influential as a coach on my career,” Drake said. “It was a privilege that I was able to provide some small sponsorship to the BHF team and was also invited to play.
“When Dan lost to me I thought it would be a great time to do something fun for the team. Dan is incredibly humble and he was a great sport — despite being jeered by Mils and Richie from the crowd.”
Having such an illustrious waterboy may seem weird, but such randomness can occasionally happen at the Sevens.
Bradley Wiggins was the drinks carrier for a team — Joining Jack — in the International Vets in between winning the 2012 Tour de France, and the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award. England’s fly-half, Owen Farrell, was a babysitter/waterboy for the same team last year.
And Carter is not the only celebrity recruit Stefan’s BHF have had, either. A year later, Bobby Skinstad revived his international career by playing for the same team.
The former South Africa captain had fallen out of love with rugby, and was working in London as a marketing executive instead.
He was encouraged to join Czerpak’s social team for the UAE National Day weekend, revived his love for the game, and by the following year was back in the Springboks side, playing at the World Cup in France.
“Bobby was getting offers to come back and play, but had lost his spark because of what had happened at the end of his career when he was getting a lot of stick,” Czerpak said.
“He was the poster boy for South African rugby for years, as a young captain. Drakey contacted him about coming to play in the Sevens, twisted his arm, and that got his juices flowing about playing again.”
Having Skinstad as part of their squad made time-management tricky.
“When we were walking around the ground, South African people were coming up to him and it was like they were throwing rose petals at his feet,” Czerpak said.
“It took us about two hours to get around the pitch at one point, because so many people stopped him, asking if he was going to come back.
“At the end of the weekend he told us that playing with us had given him his spark back. We hold onto that as a bit of a claim to fame.”
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