Orene Ai’i called up to help Christina Noble back to the top at Dubai Sevens

Paul Radley writes the team that have boasted World Cup winners are turning to a tried-and-true sevens star to overturn Xodus Steelers at Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Orene Ai'i shown with Racing Club of Lagos during the 2012 Dubai Rugby Sevens. Jake Badger / The National
Orene Ai'i shown with Racing Club of Lagos during the 2012 Dubai Rugby Sevens. Jake Badger / The National

DUBAI // No team in Dubai Sevens history has enjoyed quite the monopoly on success Christina Noble once managed in the International Veterans event.

For six seasons up until the 2012 final, the charity side never lost a match. Not that you would have expected them to, given their playing roster.

From the mid-2000s onwards, they had their pick of the very best, with World Cup winners like Will Greenwood, Tim Horan and Percy Montgomery all pulling on the orange shirt.

This time around, though, they have taken a different tack as they try to regain their status as the best 35-and-overs from Xodus Steelers, who have been winners for the past two years.

Unless you are a sevens aficionado with a relatively long memory, this year’s star recruit for Christina Noble may not register too readily.

But there have been few better than Orene Ai’i. This time 10 years ago, the Samoa-born playmaker was an irresistible force on the world series with New Zealand.

He went on to be crowned world sevens player of the year in 2005, and money-spinning moves to play XVs in France and Japan ensued.

Ai’i became eligible to play vets rugby this September, when he turned 35. Which seems amazing, given that it only feels like it was yesterday when he was in his glorious youth.

“I’m still feeling pretty good and keeping myself fit as much as possible, but definitely don’t feel like a vet,” Ai’i said. “Maybe ask me after Day 1 and see if my answer is still the same.”

The former Auckland Blues fly-half is well acquainted with Dubai. As recently as two years ago he was a guest player with Racing Club of Lagos in the International Open tournament.

His return to the format did not go unnoticed. Gordon Tietjens was even open to the idea of recalling him to his all-conquering New Zealand side.

“He does offer a huge array of skills that can be complementary to my sevens team,” Tietjens said back then.

Seeing as sevens is supposed to be a young man’s game, that was quite an endorsement.

“I contemplated giving New Zealand sevens a good go but there were a lot of good young players coming through,” Ai’i said this week.

“And I knew Tietjens was always looking to blood young talent. I’m just glad I was able to come back and play sevens at a very high level again for Auckland.

“But my favourite memories of Dubai are the friends I’ve made from the other countries and how everyone makes it a big party atmosphere.”

Christina Noble, who play in the Vets 10s tournament to raise awareness of a children’s charity, still have their fair share of recognisable names from the international XVs game.

Dafydd James, the former Wales and British & Irish Lions winger, is back. So is Kevin Yates, the former England prop, and Elvis Seveali’i, the ex-Samoa powerhouse.

The have also recruited Hale T-Pole, the No 8 who is passing through the UAE en route back from playing for Tonga against Scotland and the United States on their European tour.

“I was on my way to New Zealand on the same route, so I said I would love to play,” said T-Pole, the back-row forward who turned 35 in April.

“From what I’ve heard about this tournament, there are a few players who are still in good nick and still play.

“But if there is a guy there who is 37 and he has played professional rugby, it is in his head not to take a backward step.

“I don’t feel like it’s a tournament for retired players. We will be playing all out.”

pradley@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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