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The Wellington Sevens are under threat. Ticket sales have been poor and alcohol-related incidents from the often large and colourful crowds have led to a serious demise in ticket sales in 2015.
It seems that the rugby has become a secondary event and that is a shame because there has been some brilliant rugby played at the Wellington Sevens, rugby that mirrors the growth and prospects in the game of sevens.
2000: The inaugural sevens a huge success
The first Wellington Sevens were held in 2000 and won by Fiji, beating New Zealand 24-14 in the Cup final. Despite the presence of All Blacks Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu, Eric Rush and Caleb Ralph, New Zealand was outpaced by Fiji.
Veteran skipper Waisale Serevi led the way but it was Marika Vunibaka and rising sensation Vilimoni Delasau who stole the show with two tries each. Delasau finished the first year of the IRB sevens series with 82 tries and later played 29 Tests for Fiji.
Canada, buoyed by raucous support from the crowd, came from behind to beat South Africa 24-21 in the plate final, with an Andrew Hoffman try bringing the crowd to their feet and sealing what was a superb victory in a tournament that attracted 70,000 spectators and plenty of praise.
Serevi finished the tournament as the top point’s scorer with 84 points from four tries and 32 conversions. New Zealand’s Tony Monaghan was second with 75 points from 5 tries and 25 conversions.
2003: New Zealand wins for the first time!
New Zealand won their first Wellington title in 2003 when they beat England 38-20 in the final. New Zealand led 17-14 at halftime with the rampaging Roy Kinikinilau crossing for a brace and semifinal hero Tafai loasa gaining the third score, loasa had scored a try with the last play of the cup semi-final to beat Fiji, 24-22.
England stayed handy with tries to former Kiwi Henry Paul and speedster Ugo Monye (14 Tests for England), but eventually the Kiwis, spurred on by a raucous home crowd, foiled England with Ioasa scoring a hat-trick.
Coach Sir Gordon Tietjens was ecstatic with the impact made by Kinikinilau (he scored twice in the semi-final) and Bay of Plenty 18-year-old Liam Messam who later became an All Black.
2006: The first extra-time final
Fiji and South Africa contested a classic 2006 final which Fiji made following some controversy in their semi-final against New Zealand. Greg Ford reported in the Sunday Star Times:
Fiji gate-crashed rugby’s biggest party last night bundling New Zealand out of the IRB sevens after a controversial referring decision in the semifinals. One of New Zealand’s standout players, Lote Raikabula had his tournament soured when referee James Leckie sinbinned him in the second hall for a high tackle. At the time New Zealand was leading 14-12, but the Fijians punished New Zealand by ruthlessly exploiting their extra man. Neumi Nanuku ran in two long range tries against a depleted defence to guide his team into the final against South Africa.
In the final, Fiji appeared to be cursing to victory when they led 17-5 at halftime. South Africa stormed back with three tries to push ahead.
Fiji boasted the “simply sensational” William Ryder though! Ryder scored three tries and set up Epeli Dranivasa in regulation time. In golden-point extra-time Neumi Nanuku surged 80-metres for a thrilling winner.
Cory Jane played this tournament for New Zealand. Ryder went onto play for Test rugby Fiji.
2008: Victor Vito plays like Jonah
The Sunday Star Times reported after the 2008 Wellington Sevens:
New Zealand sevens rugby – no, make that New Zealand rugby – has a new star after Wellington youngster Victor Vito produced a match-winning display reminiscent of Jonah Lomu to lead his side to a third straight IRB Sevens title in the capital.
Vito scored two tries, including the match-winner in the final minute, as New Zealand won a thrilling final 22-17 over Samoa.
Vito, the emerging Wellington flanker, had been picked as a possible game-breaker out wide, and he repaid Tietjens’ selection in spades during this tournament. His performance in the final had Jonah Lomu written all over it, especially his first-half effort that left Samoans trailing in his wake.
“There’s nothing better than this,” said Tietjens afterwards. “To score off the last move of the game, that’s what practice is all about.”
Tietjens also didn’t mind sending some special praise the way of Vito, who was the difference on the night. “What an outstanding performance for such a young guy,” he said.
Vito admitted the emotions of it all had been too much and that he had shed tears after what he had achieved became obvious. “It can’t get any better,” said the new star of sevens rugby. “Amazing, it just feels awesome right now. I was crying before.”
Other highlights in the game included a freakish try by Mikaele Pesamino and a 40-metre drop goal by Lolo Lui.
2009: England’s great comeback
Paul Grant, Zar Lawrence and skipper DJ Forbes scored three quick tries to catapult New Zealand 17-0 ahead in the 2009 decider. Ollie Phillips pulled one back before halftime to reduce the deficit to 5-17.
Mark Hinton reporting in the Sunday Star Times described what happened next:
What a final. What a finish. The glorious, boisterous, colourful mardi gras that is the Wellington Sevens came to a fitting conclusion, even if it did leave 35,000-odd Kiwis stunned as their heroes were pipped at the final whistle by England…In a thrilling final, that rose above an overly officious refereeing performance, England scored a seven-pointer right at the death to steal the match, and the title, off New Zealand 19-17…Fijian transplant Isoa Damudamu was the hero for the English, the long-striding flyer storming on to a nice offload to slice through a tiring Kiwi defence to grab the try that gave the English a memorable victory.
Wellington Sevens winners
2002: South Africa
2003: New Zealand
2004: New Zealand
2005: New Zealand
2008: New Zealand
2011: New Zealand
2012: New Zealand
2014: New Zealand
Note: In 2001 future Wallaby Julian Huxley kicked a last-play conversion in the final to beat Fiji 19-17. The conversion was kicked in virtually the same place that John Eales slotted his famous Bledisloe Cup penalty the previous year.