In keeping with the HSBC Penguin selection tradition, an international squad was assembled for the Club’s first participation in the Roma International 7s. The Squad gathered in Edinburgh over the weekend of the 31st May/1st June to prepare for the tournament. First to arrive was the Fijian contingent, comprising Aseali Boko, Lepani Nabuliwaqa, Seniasi Matelewena and Elia Rakikedike, 3 of whom have represented Fiji in the 7s game. Next to arrive were the New Zealanders: Benji Oleson, Glen Rolls and Frank Afeaki. Frank has represented the Penguins previously at the Hong Kong 10s. On Monday, the Squad was joined by the Scottish duo of Jamie Blackwood and Jamie Rennie; by Coach John McKittrick, from North Harbour and Penguins, and by the very experienced Penguin, and New Zealand 7s international, Marc Camburn. This left only Hong Kong XVs and 7s International, Rowan Varity, to join on Wednesday.
Coach McKittrick, straight from the plane, ran his first training session at Myreside (home of the famous Watsonians Club), in Edinburgh, on Monday afternoon. Despite various degrees of jet-lag, the Squad looked sharp, fit, and ready to go. On Monday evening the Squad dined at Gordon’s Trattoria on the Royal Mile in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town. Incidentally, the restaurant is run by Watsonian stalwart, prop, Gary Scott, for whose hospitality we are truly grateful. A theme emerged here: much of our dining experiences were to occur in establishments managed by former props….read on!
Tuesday and Wednesday were devoted to further training sessions at Myreside , under the watchful eye of Coach McKittrick, and, on Tuesday evening, several practice games were played against Watsonians 7s – to whom we are also grateful. Impressively, Varity, also straight from the airport, took part in Wednesday’s session. Wednesday afternoon saw the Squad depart Edinburgh for Rome. After settling into the Jolly Hotel, a short tour of the Piazza Navona and Campo Dei Fioiri was facilitated by tour Manager, David Harris, during which we were joined by Valerio Tavano, our chaperone/translator/driver, and Borat, our second driver. Our appreciation for Valerio’s hard work during our time in Rome needs must be noted.
On Thursday, during the final training and run through at the grounds of Lazio Rugby Club, Coach McKittrick stepped up the intensity a gear or two. Thereafter, a couple of hours were enjoyed visiting the Coliseum and Circus Maximus, and, come the evening, the Squad was joined by Craig Brown and Vince Bramhall, when Team Penguin attended the opening ceremony at the Stadio dei Marmis. Funnily enough, dinner on Thursday was taken at the restaurant of former Roma prop, Angelo!
Final preparations for the tournament were made on Friday, which involved a team meeting and line-out sessions in the hotel car park! The players then prepared themselves for the first day of the tournament, while the management team ensured water and food supplies for the day were in place. Friday also saw the arrival of PIRFC President, Alan Wright; PIRFC Chairman, Tom Wacker, and many other officials and guests.
The Roma 7s is truly a festival of rugby. The main event comprised 4 pools of 4 teams in a round-robin format. The pool winners and runners-up progressed to the Cup’s knock-out stages, while the less successful teams battled it out in the Bowl and Shield competitions. Day one: the teams played 2 games each in the round-robin. These were interspersed with local teams’ veterans’ rugby, and women’s rugby matches.
The standard of teams participating was very high. The line-up included the Italian National Rugby 7s Team; the French National 7s Team; the British Army; Samurai International RFC; Kooga Wailers (Newcastle Falcons); Stellenbosch University; the Marauders, and the Seven Kings of Rome, featuring past Penguin star, Waisale Serevi. The two national sides apart, the Army looked particularly strong - featuring 4 Fijian Internationals, including Penguin, Apolesi Satala, as well as former Scotland 7s captain, Mark Lee. Several England players took the field for the Kooga Wailers, Samurai, and the Maraudas. Spectators enjoyed the strong turn-out of world 7s stars.
Group D contained PIRFC; the much fancied British Army; Mel’s Exiles - heralding from Wales, and Rome’s premier rugby club, Unione Rugby Capitaliona, which plays in the top Italian league. The Penguins achieved comfortable victories over URC 44 – 0, and Mel’s Exiles 37 – 0. Try scorers on the first day were Lapani, Boko, Elia, Blackwood, Camburn, Afeaki, and Varty; with Laepani looking particularly sharp throughout. Although these victories were satisfactory, the Team found the 30 minutes' rugby over a 5 hour period frustrating. It proved challenging to establish continuity, as the long rest periods made the Team feel as if it was starting from scratch with each game. With the British Army recording similar results to the Penguins, the pool decider was set for our first match on day two.
The late scheduled start of play on Saturday enabled Penguin cadres to visit the Vatican and other sites of interest. Then, at 17.20, the Army and the Penguins took to the field. The first try was notched up by Lipani after 4 minutes of intense, quality play. Following more Penguin pressure, with Camburn showing his true class, and Blackwood full of running, Blackwood touched down his second try at the end of the first half. With the conversion, the Penguins took a 12 – 0 lead at half time. The second half was an equally tight affair, with some big hits and not-a-lot of space on the very narrow pitch. Adapting well to the pitch’s peculiarities, the Penguins played a physical game, and, after some Lepani magic, created another converted try. This was enough to close out the game despite a late consolation effort from the Army. Overall, a fine display of rugby by the two best teams in the tournament. The final score tells of a Penguin victory: 19-5.
Following the long, and eagerly awaited, last cup 1/4 final, the Penguins, by now the crowd favourites, through their outstanding play and ambassadorial duties, took to the park to challenge the White Hart Marauders (featuring Penguin and former England 7s star, Howard Graham) for a semi-final spot. This match was much closer than expected! The Penguins made it difficult for themselves by squandering a 17 – 0 advantage, while the Marauders pressed them all the way to, and through, extra time sudden-death. Ultimately, it was sudden death for the Mauraders – the Penguins were through! Credit is due to the Marauders, led by the experienced Graham (not to forget his characteristic tenacity and guile!), and featuring our on-loan squad member, the hard working Jamie Rennie.
Stellenbosch University, having disposed of the 2007 winners, Kooga Wailers, awaited their semi-final with the Penguins - scheduled for 22.20, or thereabouts! Stellenbosch, always a well-drilled 7s outfit, and victorious three times at the Melrose 7s during the late 90s and early 00s, is never to be engaged casually! Typically, they feature a real flyer on the wing, and it was he who caught the Penguins cold within the first 30 seconds, striding outside both Lepani and Elia. However, the Penguins buckled down and matched the hard-hitting South African forwards with the strength and skills of Senasi, Camburn and Afeaki up front. With Blackwood and Lepani forming a fine, imaginative, and fast combination at half back, the Penguins slowly began to dominate on the park, creating space for Elia and Boko out-wide. A well-worked try resulted, and then, unusually for 7s, a drop-goal from the unorthodox Lepani, saw the Penguins take a well-deserved lead. 10-7 at half time and the Team looked in control.
The fresh legs of Rolls, Oleson, and Varity, were introduced after the break, and with which, the physical nature of the game continued! Stellenbosch asserted considerable pressure as they fought for every scrap of possession. Although several opportunities to score were created by the Penguins, they were not successfully converted, that is, until Boko came through for the second Penguins’ try. At 17 – 7, with 2 or 3 minutes remaining, the game was waiting to be shut out. Stellenbosch, however, had other ideas! With a little assistance from the referee, Stellenbosch’s second, second-half, unconverted try, drew the game level at The Death. Sudden-death extra-time would separate the teams. A lucky bounce from the kick-off (the ball skewing off a Penguin player and taking a bounce only a rugby ball can, straight into the arms of a Stellenbosch player and away from the Penguins’defence ) gave Stellenbosch a clear run to the line. It was a disappointing finish to the PIRFC’S tournament, albeit with no discredit. The Penguins lost to a very strong Stellenbosch University team, with a performance which epitomised their great club’s spirit, by fighting all the way to the final whistle.
Stellenbosch faced the British Army in the midnight final, only to be vanquished, some-what convincingly! The British Army received the trophy, and thereafter, the party continued well into the wee-small hours.
Sunday was devoted to sight-seeing: the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and Spanish Steps, thence to the airport where the team dispersed to all corners of the globe.
In summary: a successful trip, ending in the semi-finals for the Penguins, who were just unable to close out a winnable game, and earn the right to play the British Army for the second time. Credit is due to the entire squad, which delivered fine performances in difficult circumstances (in particular, the unique organisation of the event), and which proudly carried the names of HSBC and PIRFC. Not unusual for Penguin squads, the Team made a fine impression on the crowd, for whom they became firm favourites.
Penguins 44 – 0 Unione Rugby Capitaliona
Penguins 37 – 0 Mel’s Exiles
Penguins 19 – 5 British Army
Penguins 17 - 17 White Hart Marauders (Penguins winners in sudden death)
Penguins 17 – 17 Stellenbosch (Stellenbosch winners in sudden death)
Squad: Marc Camburn (Takapuna, NZ 7s - Captain), Frank Afeaki (Nth Harbour Marist, Nth Harbour 7s), Jamie Blackwood (Watsonians, Scotland 7s), Asaeli Boko (Nadi, Fiji 7s), Lepani Nabuliwaqa (Red Rock, Fiji 7s), Sydney Matelewena (Red Rock, Suva), Benji Olsen (Hinuera, Waikato 7s), Elia Radikedike (Exiles, Fiji 7s), Rowan Varty (Hong Kong 7s, Hong Kong), Glen Rolls (Lincoln, Hawkes Bay U21)
Coach: John McKittrick
Manager: David Harris
Back Row: Craig Brown, Frank Afeaki (Nth Harbour Marist, Nth Harbour 7s), Glen Rolls (Lincoln, Hawkes Bay U21), Lepani Nabuliwaqa (Red Rock, Fiji 7s), Elia Radikedike (Exiles, Fiji 7s), Asaeli Boko (Nadi, Fiji 7s), John McKittrick (Coach)
Front Row: David Harris (Manager), Benji Olsen (Hinuera, Waikato 7s), Rowan Varty (Hong Kong 7s, Hong Kong), Marc Camburn (Takapuna, NZ 7s - Captain), Jamie Blackwood (Watsonians, Scotland 7s), Sydney Matelewena (Red Rock, Suva)