Former Speranza22 duo return to Dubai Rugby Sevens – this time as All Blacks

Amanaki Nicole and Luke Masirewa, who memorably helped Speranza22 win competition last year, team up again for New Zealand

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 29 NOVEMBER 2018. The Dubai Rugby Sevens Tournament, Day Two. LtoR: Amanaki Nicole and Luke Masirewa in the gray vests. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Paul Radley. Section: Sport.
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When the elite players involved in the World Sevens Series have breaks between matches, their recovery is usually closely regimented and monitored. Stay hydrated, stay out of the sun, and if you can get back to the hotel for a rest, all the better.

For two new recruits in the New Zealand side, though, the gap between their second and third pool matches on Friday at The Sevens provided a chance to get to the outside fields and watch their mates play instead.

Last year, Amanaki Nicole and Luke Masirewa were part of a team set up in New Zealand by three formerly Abu Dhabi-based brothers that claimed an extraordinary win in the International Invitational tournament.

On the way to that final, their Speranza22 side trounced England’s feeder team, and beat South Africa’s second string in the final, in front of 40,000 people on Pitch 1.

Twelve months later, the duo are playing all of their fixtures on the main field, having been elevated to the All Blacks Sevens side.

It is a remarkable rise for two players who had no inkling they were even in the thoughts of the New Zealand selectors when they played here last year.

HONG KONG, HONG KONG - APRIL 07: Amanaki Nicole of New Zealand runs with the ball during the HSBC Hong Kong Sevens 2018 match between New Zealand and Samoa on April 7, 2018 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images for HSBC)
HONG KONG, HONG KONG - APRIL 07: Luke Masirewa of New Zealand in action during their Pool A match between Fiji and New Zealand as part of the  HSBC Hong Kong Sevens 2018 on April 7, 2018 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images for HSBC)

“That was my first taste of playing in front of a massive crowd,” said Nicole, who was originally an injury reserve for the New Zealand side at this tournament, but eventually found himself in the first 12.

“I had no idea [I was in the running for New Zealand selection last year]. I had never spoken to them at all before in my life.

“After we headed home after this tournament, we had provincial nationals for New Zealand and we got tapped on the shoulder after the tournament, then went into camp and both managed to get selected.”

Nicole and Masirewa went from feeling like “brothers” as part of Speranza’s emotional triumph in the UAE, to being opponents in that provincial competition. They even played against each other in the pool stage – but each ended up with the same prize: national selection.

Masirewa said the only experience to rival their Pitch 1 triumph last year was when he subsequently played in Hong Kong with New Zealand. He is grateful for that big-match taster in Dubai.

“I still get a bit nervous – before every game, it doesn’t matter who you are playing against,” Masirewa said. “But it was great to have that experience last year, and get a taste for it.”

They were side-line on Pitch 5 to watch Speranza22 began the defence of their title on Friday afternoon. The fixture against the French Military Sevens was not without its problems.

The holders were shown three yellow cards across the 14 minutes, and at one point were down to five players. But they were good value for their eventual 12-7 win.

Nicole and Masirewa’s schedule with the New Zealand team means they are unlikely to get the chance to see their mates in action again this weekend – but are hopeful they succeed again.

The International Invitational final is the last match to be played on Pitch 1 on Saturday evening before the business end of the World Series competition.

Nicole is hopeful both New Zealand and Speranza22 – a team set up to honour the memory of Marco Speranza, a former Abu Dhabi Harlequins junior, who died in an air crash in 2013 – are still involved at that point.

“Hopefully we can get into it again tomorrow and the boys can curtain raise for our final,” Nicole said.

“It is difficult to describe what it is like [playing for Speranza22], but it feels like being part of a family.

“You want to play so hard for the boys. Everyone gets along so well together, you know as soon as you run on the field wearing that jersey you are willing to die for the brothers next to you.”

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