Fiji’s golden generation answer call as Speranza 22 eye more Dubai Sevens glory

Olympic gold-medal winning captain Osea Kolinisau to lead invitational side’s all-star cast this weekend

Travel restrictions around the globe have meant a variety of familiar faces have had to forego their return to the UAE for this year’s Emirates Dubai Sevens.

It would be easy to have assumed the strict regulations in New Zealand, for example, would have paused one of the tournament’s most enduring stories.

Speranza 22 are an invitational side who were founded for the purpose of an annual get-together at the Dubai Sevens, in memory of their friend Marco Speranza.

The former Abu Dhabi Harlequins player died in a plane crash in his native Argentina in February 2013. The team bearing his name has appeared at every Dubai Sevens since, winning the International Invitational title — which is the tournament one down from the World Series competition — in 2017.

Given the nucleus of the side now live in New Zealand, it was always going to be a stretch to field a side in this tournament.

Or so you might think. In fact, they will be fielding three — one each in the International Invitational, International Open, and Local Social tournament.

And their International Invitational side might be one of the most star-studded ever to take the field in a sevens event anywhere — World Series or otherwise.

After pooling their resources with Life After Rugby, a Fiji-based initiative for ex-players, Speranza will be able to call on many of the players who won the first Olympic gold in sevens, back at Rio 2016.

Their squad includes World Rugby hall of famer Osea Kolinisau, former world player of the year Samisoni Viriviri, and two-time World Series winner Semi Kunatani.

“A lot of us started out playing on the series in Dubai and it holds a lot of memories for us,” Kolinisau, who was the Fiji captain at Rio 2016, said before conducting a training session for schoolkids at Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai.

“This is about giving back to rugby for what it has given most of us. In terms of the Speranza partnership, we are happy to represent the memory of Marco.”

Back in their pomp, this Fiji side were one of the most attractive ever to play the game. Now the pressure is off, Kolinisau reckons they might be even better to watch.

“We were a bit rusty on the first day we arrived here,” said Kolinisau, who won the International Invitational with South Sea Drifters on his debut tour in 2007.

“It is the first time we have been back together for three or four years. We know we are not the youngest team there, but we might be the biggest and most physical.

“Nothing will change. We will live and die by the sword, by our offloads. We are hoping to showcase Fijian rugby, and do in the Invitational tournament what we did in the main competition.

“When we go to a tournament, our only intention is always to win it. Not to participate, but show the world what Fijian rugby is all about.

“It is going to be a good feeling to be back out there in front of those crowds again. These are going to be good memories.”

Whether they have a full squad to call on remains to be seen. The logistics of travel to the UAE from the South Pacific given the current climate have been challenging.

The players had to fly from Fiji via Sydney, then Singapore and on to Dubai. Rory Greene, the Abu Dhabi-based manager of the Speranza side, says all the effort will be worth it to see the players in action.

“What we are trying to do is become a globally recognised invitational sevens team who bring good people in, but maintain the focus on charity,” Greene said.

“The only way we can really do that is expanding who can play for us, while maintaining the ethos of making sure they are good blokes first and foremost.

“It has been difficult this year. The New Zealand boys have not been able to come here, which is a real shame, but it was not worth the risk.

“We could get them here but there would be no way to get them back. We have been watching the news very carefully, and hopefully we can get through the weekend before there is anything drastic like travel bans.”

LAR Speranza 22’s International Invitational fixtures

Thursday December 2

2.20pm Pitch 4: v Monaco Impis

4.20pm Pitch 4: v Zastava 7s

Friday December 3

6.46pm Pitch 2: v Germany Development

Updated: December 1st 2021, 4:25 AM