By Ronan Kett
Like many Irish supporters I watched the recent Australia – Fiji game at the 2023 Rugby World Cup with great interest.
During the match, and after Fiji had forged a well won victory, the cameras zoomed in on Waisale Serevi, the Fijian ‘Maestro’ and the greatest Sevens player ever. The skillset & talent he possessed and the footwork to go with that made it almost impossible to play against. As a player, he also brought his brilliant 7’s skills to the full 15’s game appearing in three Rugby World Cups for Fiji – 1991, 1999 and 2003.
He played in over 350 tournaments including, believe it or not, the Heineken Kinsale 7s. He was primarily a 7s player with a career span over about 17 years. So, I started thinking back to Kinsale when Serevi came to play at the at Snugmore, and how it came about twenty years ago!
The opportunity of a meeting
We first met Serevi briefly in Dublin in November 2002 sounding out the possibility of him playing in Kinsale the following year. Playing full-back for Fiji against Ireland in a windy, wet Lansdowne Road the day before, he wasn’t too chatty at first. Ground conditions did not suit Serevi’s or Fiji’s fast running style of rugby while Ireland dominated the set pieces. A win for Ireland.
Nevertheless, Waisale was happy to meet in the Team Hotel and talk about Sevens Rugby and hear about Kinsale. He was intrigued by the Event format which was very different from Tier 1 events run by the IRB worldwide and respective national unions and that Kinsale was hosted and organised by club volunteers.
Important too, of course, was that the Heineken Kinsale Sevens was the first event for many invitational sides on the european Sevens circuit. He didn’t commit to our invitation to play in Kinsale but the door was definitely open. But with close follow up in the New Year, he agreed to play with the South Sea Drifters, a mainly Fijian side who had playing at Kinsale since 1999. They were supported by Kentz, an international engineering firm with strong roots in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
An exciting tournament line-up
This was brilliant news and raised the Heineken Kinsale Sevens standing amongst Sevens rugby events to a different level. The world’s best Sevens rugby player was coming to play in our tournament at Snugmore! So, the stage was set for an exciting rugby event on the May weekend. There was a strong line up of teams (78 in all, men and ladies) with a particular competitive entry for the Senior Mens with 10 teams, including South Sea Drifters (Fiji), New Zealand Wekas (NZ), Fiji Samurais (Fiji/Eng) and Suzies Exiles (Netherlands).
Serevi flew in from France to Cork a few days before to acclimatise, to meet the other players and for some pre match training. He knew some of the players or their brother or cousin. Fiji was like that! Other elite teams also arrived early requesting some pitch time on Thursday/Friday.
U-20’s fixtures, on Friday, aside the Sevens kicked off on Saturday morning. The weather forecast was not auspicious and as the day progressed the conditions of wind and rain deteriorated. It was amazing though to watch all the teams playing rugby - no quibble – braving the elements. The Fijian players - especially Serevi - played some great rugby and the spectators quickly witnessed some of the best of his skills and ability, turning the opposition, creating space from nothing, as well as his acceleration, offloads and line speed. Masterclass!
The Drifters won all their games. An abiding memory of them though was the whole squad drinking copious flasks of hot tea at our Clubhouse Hospitality to warm up!
When it rains it pours
So, after the end of Saturday’s play, the seedings for Senior Mens were made. South Sea Drifters were likely candidates to progress to Sunday’s final. While the schedule was also made for teams in the other competitions to commence on Sunday. However, it was fingers crossed regarding the weather but alas the forecast rain storm came through Sunday morning. The barometer had fallen fast. Arriving very early, the Kinsale Event Team were greeted by torrential weather and unplayable pitches. All the infrastructure though held fast.
The referees arrived promptly and duly walked to pitches to officially advise they were unplayable. We had to make an official announcement to the players who all gathered in the main marquee that Sunday’s play was cancelled. The conditions then and for the day ahead and most importantly our duty of care and consideration for all the players’ wellbeing and safety. All the players remained in the marquee. Nobody wanted to go home.
Serevi and his fellow Fijians, the New Zealand Wekas – all along way from home – were philosophical. Others were hoping we had playable alternative grounds elsewhere but it was the same outcome all over Cork county.
We offered teas, coffees, and any refreshments we had, to the players and their supporters, and which were gratefully received. We notified the media of course and the regional radio stations all carried the news. Still all the teams stayed with the players sharing stories with others how they got on with the Rugby on Saturday.
Making the most of the facilities!
The DJ, having heard the news arrived soon after to wrap things up but when he saw the crowd he immediately started playing the music. Some tentative enquiries were made about the bar opening; we did so in keeping with Sunday hours! The barometer was rising again!
The music picked up too in song beat and volume. Serevi might not have known anything then about ‘Living next door to Alice’, ‘Brewing up a storm’ or Christy Moore’s ‘Ride on’ but he sure got the vibe! Sunday at Kinsale Sevens was like no other before or since. As a sports social event the ‘gathering’ of players and supporters was most memorable. We couldn’t hide our disappointment not being able to see out the tournament finals but were uplifted by the positive reaction of teams, players and sponsors wanting to return in 2004.
Serevi flew back to France where he was playing Stade Montois in Mont-de-Marsan. Before we saw him off at the Airport he said he wanted to come back to the next Kinsale Sevens and finish the job. Also 90% of the teams who had played in 2003 – all the Senior Mens invitational teams - came back again. We had 84 teams in all.
The weather for the run in to the tournament was sublime and continued for whole weekend. Serevi arrived Thursday morning and met the players at the Team Hotel. Again, he had a very disciplined routine and the afternoon saw the Drifters training up at Snugmore. Even then, they seemed to be a particularly good squad.
Their Team Manager admitted they were out to win – this was their fifth time in Kinsale, winning in ’99 and 2000. In 2002 they were beaten by Fiji Samurais. In 2001 we had to cancel the tournament on St. Patrick’s Day due the ‘foot and mouth epidemic’. We were the first international sports event in Ireland to do so.
So, in light of that, it was important that all the teams and participants experienced an enjoyable Heineken Kinsale 7s. And yes they did! The Senior Mens elite competition provided scintillating and fast-action running rugby! Serevi was the star attraction and justified that with his play. The Saturday matches while part of a one day competition also provided the team seedings for Sunday. There were 11 teams in all – from Ireland, Belgium, England, Fiji, France, Netherlands, Wales and New Zealand.
UCD bring their maul game
Sunday beckoned and while South Sea Drifters, with Serevi onboard were favourites. However, they didn’t have all their own way. One of the more interesting challenges they faced was playing UCD in the group stages.
UCD was not then noted as a sevens rugby stronghold but the students came up with a plan. Possession (of the ball) being nine tenths of the law, the forward dominated UCD side mauled from near the half way line, immediately from Serevi’s kick off. At first the Fijians didn’t react – they had never seen this before in the sevens game – and UCD drove on. 30 metres, 20 metres out from the try line, the Fijians still not being able to stop it and the rugby fans roaring them on, 10 metres and just on the cusp of scoring UCD knocked the ball on.
Opportunities in sport merely pause, they do not stay! The Fijians found a way to deny the Students any decent possession from thereon in. A few more mauls ensued during the game but they did not reach near the Drifters try line. The game ended 38-0.
Afterwards, The South Sea Drifters players went over the UCD team to have chat about the game. Later Serevi said the UCD maul ‘was the maddest thing he’d ever seen in all his time playing sevens’.
For many years after the maul became UCD’s trademark move at Kinsale with vary degrees of success. They always got a great roar from the crowd of rugby supporters though!
Serevi proves the difference
As nearly always, the top 4 teams made it the semi-finals; Susies Exiles from Amsterdam faced Fijian Babas while New Zealand Wekas stood in the way of South Sea Drifters. Both Fijian sides emerged victorious from two thrilling semi-finals.
The final was a close first half with 2 tries each; in the second half Serevi proved to be difference showing he was still the ‘maestro’! After the medals cermony, the South Sea Drifters turned to face the Clubhouse and performed the ‘Cibo’ the Fijian meke. The many rugby supporters there got full value!
Heineken Kinsale 7s ended on a high note which brought great satisfaction to the club organising committee and all members.
The following day we caught up with Waisale Serevi again. It was clear he had greatly enjoyed the whole weekend, the rugby experience of meeting players from all grades and from many countries and was very complementary of the Kinsale Sevens Event. For his part, Serevi impressed so many people here. He wore the mantel of rugby stardom well. And while he had long and illustrious career his true compass was his family, faith and community. He was very proud of Quarini his village from he came.
We thought then that would be the last time he would grace a rugby field of play in Ireland and so it proved to be. Kinsale Sevens was better for having him play at Snugmore for two successive tournaments and so many people travelled then to Kinsale to see him with the South Sea Drifters.
The Sevens continues to grow
All this took place over about 20 years ago. Since then, Heineken Kinsale 7s has grown and evolved year on year successfully while having met a few challenges and returning in 2023 better than ever. Kinsale RFC, led by a team of club volunteers, is already planning for more fast-action running rugby at another exciting Kinsale Sevens 2024!
Vinaka, Waisale Serevi, thank you!
Ronan Kett is a former Tournament Director of Heineken Kinsale 7s