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Melrose Sevens an oasis for parched Scottish eyes


Published Date: 13 April 2009
By David Ferguson
AS SEVENS stars from Fiji and South Africa spoke of the honour of gracing the home of sevens rugby, there was an unmistakable feeling in the sun-draped Greenyards of being at the centre of all that is good about Scottish rugby.
The national squad is struggling to convince that it deserves to remain among the top ten nations in world rugby; the professional teams of Edinburgh and Glasgow are claiming slightly more big wins against the European elite but still attracting no more supporters than was the case a decade ago.

But, here at Melrose, where Johannesburg University ran out eventual winners, all the attractive qualities of rugby blossom, around which a huge social party swirls for seven hours. The rugby stopped by 7pm, but the partying continued well past midnight.

Waisale Serevi, the world's best sevens player, reminded all on Saturday, after his final appearance as a player, that Melrose Sevens started in 1883, but it remains one clear aspect of the Scottish game that has not only retained its global charm, but built upon it.

"This was what I wanted to do – to finish at Melrose – and it was an honour to play on this ground," said Serevi, below, after his Leeds Metropolitan University team put up a good fight before losing in their first tie to Ayr, the new Scottish Division One champions. That disappointment paled for the 40-year-old, who had delighted fans with glimpses of his magic in his final 14 minutes on centre stage.

"I don't regret anything in life. This is what rugby is all about. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but I thank God for being with me all the time through the 21 years of my rugby career."

The crowd, swelling the population of Melrose by around five times its usual number, rose to acclaim him and the club's wisdom in bringing him here for a swansong.

Every year, within days of the tournament finishing and the litter-strewn Greenyards being cleared, the small Melrose band of volunteers sit down to dream up a way to improve on the tournament past.

After the 125th event last year, few believed they would achieve the modest target this time around.

But, then the sun came out, on a day when rain was forecast. Serevi took to the stage, Border clubs like Hawick, Kelso and Melrose grasped the fact the tournament seemed more open than ever, and Heriot's, Watsonians and Glasgow Hawks proved that the enjoyment and sheer skill of sevens was not confined to the south of Scotland.

And then, just as the locals among the 10,000-plus crowd were dreaming of a first Scottish win in seven years, enter, from way down south, the students of Johannesburg University, and Earl Lewis in particular.

There are many skills needed in a sevens team – from ball-winners to ball-carriers, silky half-backs to ingenious orchestrators – but there really is no substitute for sheer blinding speed, and Lewis underlined that in dazzling style with eight tries in four ties and three in the final which proved just too much for a courageous host side in the final.

On several occasions, the 21-year-old, a full-time professional who plays for the Golden Lions in the Vodacom Cup – the pro tier below Super 14 in South Africa – burst from his own 22 and just as a defender seemed to be within reaching distance he slipped into another, incredible gear and almost appeared to float above the grass to the posts.

He could also kick, slotting superb drop-goal conversions from the touchline.

Lewis did sport the same biblical reference on his arm, in Afrikaans, to that worn on his wrist and boots by Serevi (Philippians 4:13 – "I can do all things through him who strengthens me").

He is one of many who idolise the Fijian master, and it was fitting perhaps on Easter weekend that as one legend took his leave of the great stage another shining talent emerged to spark a new following.

Lewis said: "It has been an honour to play in Serevi's last tournament, and just to be here. We are all professionals, playing rugby all the time and studying mostly at night for our degrees, so we expected to win and we would have been very disappointed to go back to South Africa having lost.

"Stellenbosch University and the Shimlas have won in recent years and so there is a tradition of South African teams doing well at Melrose and we wanted to hold that up.

"I did not know a lot about Melrose Sevens before this weekend, really, but I have been part of the South Africa sevens squad and have travelled a bit, and this tournament is right up there with any. The atmosphere was incredible; the setting is magnificent; and it is the home of sevens, so it is a great place to come to."

Lewis grew up in a very poor part of the Western Cape, but attracted attention with his rugby skills and speed over 100m and 200m, and was contracted by the alma mater of Francois Pienaar. He will return to the Golden Lions camp this week as the Vodacom Cup returns to business, but with an eye on the IRB world sevens series with the Springboks next season.

For the host club, it will take some time for the disappointment to leave the Melrose players, particularly Graeme Dodds, who was part of the team that last reached the final, in 2005, but fell to Stellenbosch.

Craig Chalmers, their coach, has two winner's medals in his collection, and he admitted: "We ultimately made too many mistakes in the final and the boys are gutted because they knew it was there for the taking.

"You have to feel for them because they put everything they had into this tournament and played some terrific rugby, and I applaud them for what they produced, but the South Africans were fantastic too, and they earned the medal. It took me a long time to win it, but our guys will be back again next year and all the stronger for this experience."

Melrose were the cream of a particularly competitive group of Scottish club sides, their notable blend of Scots talent such as Dodds, John Dalziel, Scott Wight and David Whiteford with Australian sevens caps Jordan Macey and James Lew, the latter having also had to cope with a period of grieving for his friend and former team-mate, Shawn McKay, the ACT Brumbies player killed in Durban last week. Melrose held a minute's applause before Saturday's final in memory of McKay and the Hawick Wanderers stand-off Richard Wilkinson.

Rose lived up to their favourites billing with a 52-12 defeat of a Hawick side much better than that scoreline suggests, a 14-5 beating of a quality Heriots team, and a 40-5 disposal of Glasgow Hawks, while the all-round competitiveness showed as the semi-finals featured sides from abroad, the Borders, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and underlined the reviving enthusiasm for sevens across the country.

The likes of Kelso, Stirling County, Heriots, Ayr and Glasgow Hawks all had their moments, and all had real sevens stars, who grabbed the chance of green space to show abilities more hidden in XVs.

When one departs a tournament as rich in skill, passion, enthusiasm and support at this, it would be tempting to reflect that there was little wrong with Scottish rugby. That is not the case, unfortunately, but there is certainly something special here that Scottish rugby and those tasked with guiding the sport forward could be learning much more from.

This article was originally posted on 13-Apr-2009, 07:23 by Hugh Barrow.
Last updated by Hugh Barrow on 13-Apr-2009, 07:24.

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