Mathew Tait on England, South Africa, World Cups in Paris, and his return to Dubai Sevens

One of the heroes of England’s run to the 2007 final is back in the city where he first cut his teeth as an international player

Mathew Tait was appointed general manager and festival director of the Dubai Sevens in October last year. Antonie Robertson/The National
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As Mathew Tait sits at a table discussing his latest career reinvention, the TVs in the Sideliner’s Sports Lounge provide a reminder of one of his previous ones.

The screens in the first-floor lounge of the pavilion at The Sevens, Dubai, are showing re-runs of the weekend action from the Rugby World Cup, 5,500 kilometres away in France.

While Tait might want to stay on message and promote the forthcoming Emirates Dubai Sevens, of which he is general manager and festival director, it is hard not to let the mind wander.

It is 16 years now since he lit up rugby’s biggest stage, playing a starring role in what was an eventual defeat for England against South Africa in the 2007 World Cup final in Paris.

Coincidentally, the two countries are set to meet again at the Stade de France this Sunday, this time in a semi-final.

The parallels are striking. A much-derided England side playing no-frills rugby and hitting out at the doubters after making it to the business end of the competition. Then starting out as distance second favourites against a fearsome Springboks side.

Ultimately, the Boks were too good back then. But Tait was central to a valiant England rearguard which might have been successful, were it not for a fleck of touchline paint on the boot of England wing Mark Cueto.

Just after half-time, Tait set off on a mazy solo run which took him to within inches of the South Africa try line. What followed was the most hotly-debated television match official review in World Cup final history – and no try for England.

“I was really fortunate to have had the run that I did, but to pull up a bit short,” Tait said. “I could have retired on the back of that and sailed off into the sunset.

“But Mark Cueto’s foot was in touch. He will say till his dying breath that he scored the try, but I maintain he was out.

“If you look back at the whole tournament, did we deserve to win? No. South Africa were the better team. But it was a hell of a journey, and a hell of an after party.”

Tait retired from professional rugby back in 2019. He started in his new role in October 2022, a month before last year’s Dubai Sevens.

He did a master’s degree in sports directorship while he was still playing, which he is now trying to put to use organising one of the world’s leading sevens tournaments.

Dubai feels like a fitting place for him to begin life after playing. After all, it played a key role in getting his career back on track in the first place.

In 2004, aged just 18, Tait was part of an outstanding England team who won the Dubai Sevens at the old Exiles ground in Al Awir. He was back 12 months later as they completed back-to-back Dubai titles.

The intervening year, though, was brutal. Within three months of playing at the Exiles, he was fast-tracked into England’s full side for the Six Nations. He was the second youngest player, after Jonny Wilkinson, to represent England since the Second World War.

It was too much, too soon. His debut was a nightmarish experience, as he was on the receiving end of two savage hits from Gavin Henson, the Wales centre, in an England defeat in Cardiff.

He was summarily returned to club rugby. In turn, he was sent back to the sevens circuit as Rob Andrew and Steve Black, his mentors at Newcastle Falcons, sought to rebuild his confidence.

“I was first thrown in as an 18-year-old and left my lungs somewhere on the pitch,” Tait said of his memories of cutting his teeth in rugby’s abridged format.

“In 2005, I made my debut for England [XVs] in the February. Then sevens became a salvation for me, really. It was an opportunity for me to get back on track.

“The debut in ’05 hadn’t gone as it was intended to. There were various pressures that came with that. My game, at its core, was about running fast and beating people. That is what sevens is in its essence.”

Sevens has become more specialised in the time since. Back then, it was viewed as a development pathway preparing promising players for the XVs game. Or, in Tait’s case, as a rehab tool.

Now he has returned to the city as an administrator, he is tasked with overseeing the delivery of a tournament that he loved as a player.

“It was very different, far more spit and sawdust than it is now,” he said of playing at the Exiles.

“We were fortunate to get to the final both years and one of my main memories is getting ready for those by sharing the urinals with Joe Public.”

Now the Exiles has long since disappeared, consumed by the urban advance of Dubai. The tournament has relocated up the Al Ain Road, and the Sevens weekend itself has mushroomed in size.

As well as rugby, this year’s Sevens weekend will include cricket, netball, crossfit and padel. Tait, though, is in no doubt as to what the core of the UAE’s longest established sporting event is.

“There is an onus on us to make sure we don’t dilute the rugby,” Tait said. “The rugby is the heritage and tradition on which everything else is built.”

Updated: October 20, 2023, 6:59 AM