Sevens Tour Diary: Wellington

As I sit down to write this blog I realise just how lucky I am to have Andrew Turnbull as my room mate. His sharp witty banter, extreme kindness, outstanding consideration for others and general skill level has made this week one of the finest experiences of my life…

Now that Turny has left me I can start this properly. And I start with not such a great experience: travelling to New Zealand. Departing Glasgow at 6:30 am Thursday morning we arrived in Wellington at 11am Saturday morning. During this time we had to collect and recheck-in all 30 pieces of luggage at Los Angeles and Auckland before finally collecting our luggage at Wellington airport. On the plus side I got to watch Puss In Boots.

Saturday passed in a jet-lag induced blur. A pool session was followed by a wander around Wellington waterfront, including a brief visit to the Te Papa museum. However the experience was somewhat wasted as everybody was exhausted, and struggled to see the exhibits never mind read any information on them. Sunday was not much better, although we needed to train to run the journey out of our system and start the preparation for the tournament. The full effects of jet lag were evident as simple tasks became very difficult resulting in a fairly average standard of training.

To help overcome jet-lag it is advised to stay up until normal ‘bed-time.’ To achieve this a few of us popped out for dinner. We did not go to a restaurant but went to the home of former Glasgow Warrior Justin Va’a. It was great to catch up with the big fella, his wife and son, and also Dan Turner and his family. Coupled with this was a fantastic barbecue. By the time we returned to the hotel we were more than ready for bed, around 9:30pm.

Ten hours later we were up, refreshed and ready to ramp up preparations for the tournament. First up was a gym session. For this we headed to Powerhouse- a no-frills gym with some seriously strong men kicking around. Inspired by them Kerr Gossman broke all his previous records and smashed out a couple of 100kg squats. After lunch we then headed over to Petone RFC for training. It’s amazing the difference 24 hours makes. This time training was far sharper.

Tuesday morning’s session was also pretty sharp. It needed to be as we were playing a training match against Tonga. Fortunately they agreed to a “scrag” game. Even more fortunately they adhered to the rules allowing both teams to take plenty from the game. As usual we returned to the hotel via a pool session. In Wellington we have been using a quaint old outdoor pool in Thorndon.

Tuesday afternoon was the same as most Tuesday afternoon’s for rugby players in that it was spent in a coffee shop. However this time Scott Riddell and myself were behind the counter. We were participating in The Calcutta Cup Coffee Challenge on behalf of the IRB and its main sponsor HSBC. Having been given a step by step tutorial by a qualified barista on how to make the perfect coffee, Scott and myself competed with Chris Cracknell and Tom Powell of England to see who could make the best coffee. Going first, Scott and I messed up every single step- burning the coffee, allowing it to brew too long, not heating the milk and messing up the pouring. Having set such a high bar the English just scraped a win. Hopefully this is not the tone for the weekend.

Scott’s day didn’t get much better when we returned to the hotel. Our barista had been boasting about how his coffees were double strength so this may offer him an excuse. When back at the hotel we had a quick turnaround before heading to the stadium for a look around and team photo. Scott, on his coffee induced high, failed to realise that team prankster Andrew Turnbull had swapped his shorts for those a few sizes smaller. Only when we arrived at the stadium did he feel the pinch but by then it was too late. Scott has sworn his revenge will be sweet.

As the new day dawned Scott plotted his retaliation. For that we waited.

Wednesday was fairly grim due to the torrential rain accompanied by a typical Wellington wind, making for tricky training conditions. Before and after training we weigh-in to monitor fluid loss.

Along with making for a challenging training session the weather put paid to our hopes of going fishing. It is important to use time off to get away from rugby and hopefully experience some local culture or tradition. The rain and wind ruined this and instead we headed for the track for some go-karting. This turned out to be more dangerous than expected with man of the moment John “wrecking ball” Manson almost totaling the kart of James “Johnny Herbert” Eddie. Fortunately everybody escaped unhurt. Unsurprisingly neither the tortoise Manson nor the snail Eddie troubled the leaderboard. Winners on outright pace were Kerr “cannonball” Gossman and James “fast at everything” Fleming. But when penalties were added up Colin “Senna” Gregor and liaison officer Rossco Mansell came away victorious.

The aches and strains of the karting were kneaded out of us by a couple of masseurs on Wednesday evening. They were made to work for their money though, not only because of the stiffness from travel and training, but also as they had to tolerate a half hour with Fraser “Jackanory” Harkness.

Before we knew it Thursday was upon us and we were only one day away from the tournament. In Wellington you have the parade to undertake to help build the excitement. This unique event involves each team being driven through the centre of Wellington on a trailer. The streets are lined with thousands of well-wishers waving flags and cheering you on. People hang out office windows to show their support and music blares along the route. Of course, we followed a pipe band alerting the crowd to the presence of the Scottish team. It really is a fantastic event and gives you a huge buzz in preparation for the tournament.

TOURNAMENT TIME

The tournament itself is an incredible experience. Our first game was against the hosts, ensuring there was an electric atmosphere from the start. However the atmosphere was dampened slightly as we held on to a narrow 7-0 lead at half-time. Turny expertly finished off a fine team move to start the game exactly as we planned. Some staunch defence kept the kiwis at bay until the half-time hooter. Unfortunately the momentum swung in the second half with New Zealand crossing for a few unanswered tries.  We also lost Turny for the rest of the tournament as he suffered a nasty hand injury. In spite of this, there were plenty of positives to take from the performance, especially in the first half and we were in confident spirits before the game against Samoa.

The game didn’t start as hoped. Samoa crossing for a converted try. However Flem quickly drew us level. Nobody on the circuit can live with his pace and he scorched in from our own half. He then added a second giving us a 14-7 lead. A series of unfortunate events then followed, including a sin-binning for Michael Fedo. Samoa used their man advantage to cross twice and take the win. We were left bemoaning the tiny margins that make all the difference in international sport.

Having missed out on our aim of a cup quarter final we vented our fury on Japan in our final group game. A Fedo hat-trick was the highlight of a 50-0 victory, although Scott Riddell led the groans as he crossed for his third. Not out of jealousy (he assures us) but more because he knew Fedo would delight in regaling his exploits for years to come. You have been warned.

Day one had thrown up a few surprises. Kenya beat Australia, Tonga beat Fiji, Canada beat France. We were disappointed not to have caused another upset. But this disappointment was nothing compared to how we felt after we lost to Kenya in our bowl quarter final. In damp and greasy conditions we allowed Kenya to control possession and thus, the game. Despite some heroic defence in the first half we had fallen 14-0 behind going in to the last minute. As the hooter sounded debutant Byron “Barry” McGuigan crossed the line for a consolation score.

As we completed our recovery everybody was devastated. We had let ourselves down, our team-mates down and our country down. Yet we had no time to dwell on this. In a couple of hours we would be facing the USA in the Shield Semi-Final. It was not the competition we wanted to be competing in, however we had to salvage what remained of our pride. We came out the blocks flying and Barry and Flem crossed to give us a 14-0 half-time lead. Yet the bad habit of previous tournaments returned as USA scored twice. With just under 3 minutes remaining and clinging to a 14-12 lead, Colin “the animal” Gregor found himself heading to the sin-bin. Many have stated it was a harsh call, but that’s not for us to debate. It threw up a huge challenge to the 6 remaining players. And they passed it, preventing the USA from scoring and securing us a Shield final place against the Cook Islands.

Hardly a vintage performance but the key was winning after the disappointment of the Kenya game. This theme was maintained in the final. The constant drizzle had fallen throughout the day making for slippery conditions. In another workmanlike perfomance we snuck a 19-17 win. A couple of Budgie tries were interspersed with three Cook Islands tries. 19-12 down entering the last thirty seconds Michael Fedo powered his way over and got close enough to the posts to make for a reasonably straight forward conversion.

All that was left was to complete our lap of honour and then watch the cup final. As we wandered around the pitch it was difficult to spot anybody in normal clothes. The Wellington 7s has become synonymous with fancy dress and this year was no exception. The party atmosphere is increased by the music blaring between ties. As the day progresses the vibe turns more to a party than a rugby tournament. But this makes it all the more enjoyable to be a part of. Next year we can hopefully be competing in the cup competition.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment: Las Vegas…

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Colin Gregor plays for Glasgow Warriors and has also represented Scotland A. He is currently contracted to the Scotland Sevens team on the IRB Sevens Circuit.