After what was a great tournament in Dubai again we were up at the crack of dawn (6.00am) to fly to Port Elizabeth in South Africa for Leg 3. We got our aching bodies out of bed and headed down for an early morning swim to ease the bumps and bruises and loosen us up a bit for flying. The usual breakfast of eggs, beans and toast went out the window as we were allowed to indulge in some of the finer items on show, the pastries. This was to be the silver lining on a dark cloudy day of travel.
We headed to the airport around seven and joined the queue of teams checking in to fly to Johannesburg for a connection to Port Elizabeth. The flight was quiet and looking around I could tell that we were not the only team feeling the aches and pains of the last few weeks; if anything we were shaping up quite well. Not much was stirring, heads were dropping and everyone was making the most of some time to get some sleep. One seat you did not want to be in was in between the two Samoan coaches. Those lads would make Scotland’s front row look nimble.
The flight passed relatively quickly and we landed in Johannesburg where we had a couple of hours to get a feed before the short flight to Port Elizabeth. We headed through security passing Nandos on the way and arrived in the boarding area. The options for a feed were pretty slim and we opted for a sandwich I think a bunch of starving birds in the winter would have turned their noses up at but it was food all the same and we scoffed it down and jumped on the plane.
We were greeted in Port Elizabeth with scenes of jubilation, everyone was so pleased to see us and it forced a smile and a laugh from even the longest of faces. We were whisked up and driven to our hotel by a friendly face in the form of AB who has been our liaison from the past few years. We were all pleased to see him as he is one of the kindest men you will ever meet and he will do anything to make your stay more comfortable. He also had a new sidekick in a man called Royston who proved to be another genuine hard working man. The hotel was nice and we had a little package waiting for us all when we got into our rooms, much to my delight it had: a bar of chocolate, a funny little necklace, and best of all a pair of blue and white Howe of Fife bed socks. I popped these on and slept like a baby.
The week leading up to the tournament was a lot less intense than the previous two weeks. The load on our bodies was reduced and Sheesh [Graeme Shiel] worked hard to ensure that training had a lot more technical and tactical elements where we could up the intensity for short periods that would not take too much out of us and allow us to be as fresh as possible for the weekend. We were also joined in South Africa by the infamous “hacksaw” Andrew Skeen, a familiar face in Scotland Sevens and one of last season’s most consistent performers. It was exactly what we needed as he arrived with a fresh burst of energy and his usual horrendous stories to keep us all amused.
The week flew in as usual and it was time for action again. We had a chance this week with a French team who we had success against last year, a New Zealand team that hadn’t quite been firing like they normally do and an unknown Moroccan team in our group. We were excited and determined to try and make that step into the cup quarters for the first time.
Game day started the same as any other morning (weigh in, hydration test, daily monitoring and morning activity). We headed down to breakfast and the usual apprehension was on show throughout the teams. We had a later start than the week before as the tournament didn’t kick off until the afternoon which gave everyone a chance to head back to bed and rest up for another couple of hours. We got strapped up, loaded the bus and headed to the ground. The stadium we were playing at was the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium that had been designed and built for the football World Cup, it was amazing. Every team had its own changing room, the players lounge overlooked the pitch and was one of the best views in the stadium and the pitch…it was immaculate to say it was like a bowling green would be an understatement. Another perk was that the design meant even though it was blowing a gale outside, on the pitch there was not a breath of wind. The stands were right down by the touchline meaning the atmosphere was even more impressive. It was a pleasure to play on. In Scotland the only pitch that could compare would of course be Duffus park but even then the Mandela Bay Stadium would come out trumps.
We got our gear on and went through our individual warm ups, Sheesh called us in, went over our plan and announced the team to start the first tie versus France. The warm up started and it was noticeable that we were all a little lethargic, we were not quite as sharp as normal and there wasn’t the same chat. Nerves, I thought.
The game started with a bang, Fedo took a good ball at the restart and burst down the left touchline feeding little [Turn]Bully who in his present shape simply can’t be caught. He went under the sticks and Budge [Gregor] knocked over the extras. What a start. However possession is priceless and we failed to get the ball back at the next kick off. France kept the ball and their little playmaker [Steve Barry] stepped through the middle and scored. It was too easy, he went through untouched, even now it still seemed a bit flat we had to regroup and secure ball but again we failed to do so. France had clearly watched a lot of our footage and formulated a strict game plan, their pace man Delmas barely touched the ball as they constantly jacked back down the short side targeting our bigger forwards. This was a weakness of ours and we were being exposed, we can be guilty of over-chasing from breakdowns and the French played on this. Two passes and the centre would take the pace of the ball and shell it back to where it had come from where the little guy Barry was having a field day.
We succumbed to an embarrassing 31-7 defeat in the end. It was a tough defeat to take, not only were we really targeting the French game, it was the manner in which we lost that was disappointing. So far, although some results hadn’t gone our way, we had put in 12 solid performances and it was a shame we let this slip and played so poorly. We had to regroup though and the beauty of the sevens is that you get a chance to put things right straight away. In this instance it was going to be a tough task against New Zealand, but everyone loves a challenge! We went through our recovery strategy and analysed where we were poor so that we could hopefully make things right in the following game or at least learn from our mistakes.
The New Zealand game was not any easier we failed to make any use of possession and did not make New Zealand work hard for their tries. Again it was a humiliating defeat and one that was hard to swallow. We had to have a real hard look at each other and come back with a good performance against Morocco. As Sheesh said we had a choice to make, we could turn the weekend around or roll over and feel sorry for ourselves. Our captain had a really good chat with us straight after the game and everyone knew that our first two performances that day simply were not good enough, there was some real honesty amongst the group and it was clear that we were not going to give up. Morocco were in for a tough third tie. Another blow after the NZ game was our try machine (and arguably best performer on tour) Andrew Turnbull’s foot had ballooned in size after being stood on and he was out for the remainder of the tournament, at that point there was a real worry it was broken but luckily the X-ray proved there was no fracture.
We finally upped our game against Morocco with the days most convincing scoreline 50-0. Fleming showed how dangerous he can be and that he was more than capable of taking up the starting berth on the wing by scoring a blistering hat-trick. Adam Ashe also got on the scoresheet with his first try for his country. Although a convincing win and a good performance, especially in defence, there was a hollow feeling to the win as we really missed a great opportunity against France who struggled to best Morocco (19-7) and were blown away by New Zealand. We headed back to the hotel and got tucked up ready for another tasking day two where we expected to go out and win three matches. Our draw would be tough but we knew we had to make up for a below par opening two games.
Day two started against kenya. We went out for the warm up and Sheesh placed a real emphasis on getting a lot of energy in what we did to ensure the lethargy from our day one opening game would not come back to haunt us again. Everyone was fired up and we played a solid game of 7s to win comfortably 26-7.
This set up a repeat of our first week final against Argentina – a tough game but one we knew we could win. We watched their previous games and they hound teams in defence and are very difficult to break down. They also had a real threat in the shape of Montero the half-man, half-horse who had proved too much for us to handle in that game scoring two tries, the difference between us on that day. We looked hard at our kick-offs and worked out how we were going to deal with the aerial threat of Montero. The time between games disappears rapidly, and shortly after going through our recovery strategy it was time to meet in the changing room and prepare for game two.
Again the warm up was sharp and there was a real sense of urgency about how we prepared.
We started the game well and Budgie used some quick initiative taking a quick tap and darting in under the posts pretty much straight from the kick off. Argentina came back at us retaining ball at the kick off and keeping the ball for a number of phases before scoring a lovely try from a little cheeky grubber through the middle with their captain picking it up and scampering under the sticks. The next couple of minutes possession changed hands a few times before Riddell got a great steal on the hooter and we worked the ball to Michael Fedo who showed how dangerous he can be, bursting up the middle beating three players to score a fantastic solo try. After the break the Argies got another try back taking it to 14-14. It remained like this for the remainder of the half and even after the hooter the ball was still in play with neither team able to break the other down. Argentina kicked it deep and substitute Kerr Gossman went back for the ball. He did well under pressure but then had a rush of blood to the head and threw the ball out of play to try and kill the game. This of course is a penalty, and Argentina went for the win. Our defence held strong under some enormous pressure and we finally got the ball back. Gregor – who seems to never tire – realised that the Argies were out on their feet and took the quick tap to launch another attack from deep in our half. Cairnsy fresh to the game made some brilliant ground probing through the middle before feeding Gossman who made up for his earlier mistake by scoring a fantastic crucial try to clinch the win and our place in another final! It’s safe to say we were delighted. It was a great finish from the youngster and we all found our last stores of energy to chase him down the field and congratulate him.
The final was against Canada, a team that always prove a tough opponent for us. They were without their talisman Phil Mack but still had some dangerous players in the form of Sean Duke and Kieran Hearn.
We could not have started any worse, losing a try straight from the kick off with that man Duke breaking a couple of weak tackles on his way to the try line. This didn’t phase us though and we showed a bit of maturity not to panic . We got the ball back thanks to another Riddell turnover and again Fedo scored another great try breaking tackle after tackle before a dodgy dive over the line. We pushed on well from there and scored another good try but Canada hit back after some more dubious defence to make it 12-12. We finished the half on a high scoring through our pace man James Fleming gunning it down the wing on the hooter to go in 17-12. We talked at half time about how if we kept the ball we were going to score; they couldn’t live with our attack. However in contrast we had to start making our tackles.
The second half started a bit slower and there wasn’t much penetrating play. Fleming finally burst through the Canadian wide defence before feeding me to cross in the corner and put the game out of sight. From there we slowed the game down and saw the game out. One small blip was losing Cairnsy to the sin bin and letting them slip over at the death, but by that time the result was never in doubt. We had won again and it was nice to put the disappointment of the day before behind us and string four good performances together.
After the game we had a light hearted debrief and agreed that although it was a great way to finish we want to be playing in the cup competition in the future. We have a lot of work to do when we get home but it is an exciting time for us and i am already looking forward to getting fitter and sharper in time for Wellington and Vegas so we can finally achieve the cup quarter that keeps evading us!