Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 October 2020

UAE great sporting moments - No 7: Dubai Rugby Sevens grows in stature along with the country

Sevens the best attended annual event, and arguably the most popular on the calendar

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Every day over three weeks, The National looks back at the 21 greatest moments in UAE sports history.

A difficult one this. Something from the Dubai Rugby Sevens must warrant a place in the list of the UAE’s greatest sporting moments.

It is, after all, the best attended annual event, and arguably the most popular on the calendar.

But how to decide on one, single best moment, from a competition that offers so many, every year?

Go back to when it all started? To the day the Staffordshire Regiment may – or may not – have won the first tournament in 1970.

The side from the British Armed forces, who were stationed in what was then the Trucial States, are recorded as the first official winners of Dubai Exiles’ invitational sevens tournament. But some of the soldiers who were involved have since expressed doubts about that.

It is forgivable that an event still so impressively married to the amateur ideals of rugby might have lost some of the details to a misty haze. Many a Sevens weekend has gone the same way down the years.

Maybe something from the World Sevens Series, the global grand prix to which Dubai has been central since 1999?

Like Tom Varndell sealing the second of England’s back-to-back triumphs in 2005.

Or Ben Ryan’s second with Fiji – and fourth in all – in 2015, at the start of a season that ended with them becoming the first winners of Olympic sevens gold.

More than anywhere else at the Sevens, star names abound in the International Vets event.

An image from one of the first tournaments played in Dubai. 
An image from one of the first tournaments played in Dubai.

The 2013 final was the most poignant of all, with wheelchair-bound Joost van der Westhuizen being pushed through a starry guard of honour after his charity side had lost to Xodus Steelers. It was four more years before he would succumb to motor neurone disease.

But if there is one moment that encapsulates the Dubai Sevens best, it is perhaps when Speranza 22 carried off the International Invitational spoils in 2017.

It is everything that is glorious about the sevens – a local tournament that went international, that offers an opportunity for a slice of glory no matter who you are, and retains friendship at its core.

Speranza 22 players celebrate after winning the International Invitational at the 2018 Dubai Rugby Sevens. Courtesy Rory Greene
Speranza 22 players celebrate after winning the International Invitational at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Courtesy Rory Greene

Speranza 22 is a group of mates who have an annual reunion at the Sevens in memory of their mate, Marco Speranza, who died in a plane crash in 2013.

The brothers who set up the team played alongside Marco when they won the Gulf Under 19 tournament at the Sevens, before they all headed to various points of the globe.

To return as a scratch team, play in the tournament one below the World Series, and beat SA 7s Academy 17-5 in front of packed stands on Pitch One in their Saturday final, was extraordinary.

As they went to collect their award at the winners’ enclosure, the one person wearing 22 on their back pointed to the sky and said aloud: “This one is for you, Marco.”

“I was thinking about my son, because he is not here, but his soul is in every one of the players, and in every one who has supported us,” Orlando Speranza, Marco's father, said.

Updated: July 14, 2020 08:12 AM

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