Simply Serevi

Simply Serevi

Following Waisale Severi’s ‘official’ playing retirement at the recent Melrose Sevens, UR7s thought it appropriate for our lead columnist Nigel Starmer-Smith, who has followed the greatest sevens player of all from his amateur playing days to coaching his country, to give us his thoughts on what made him so special. 'Small' by nickname and stature - sky-high in talent. Waisale Tikoisolomoni Serevi dominated his sport like no other - the supreme artist, the supreme talent. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Steve Redgrave are names that have been and remain synonymous with their sport but no-one has ever quite paralleled the domination in one sphere of athletic activity over almost two decades to the extent of a courteous, deeply religious young man from the little village of Qarani on the Fijian island of Gau.

Following Waisale Severi’s ‘official’ playing retirement at the recent Melrose Sevens, UR7s thought it appropriate for our lead columnist Nigel Starmer-Smith, who has followed the greatest sevens player of all from his amateur playing days to coaching his country, to give us his thoughts on what made him so special. 

'Small' by nickname and stature - sky-high in talent. Waisale Tikoisolomoni Serevi dominated his sport like no other - the supreme artist, the supreme talent. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Steve Redgrave are names that have been and remain synonymous with their sport but no-one has ever quite paralleled the domination in one sphere of athletic activity over almost two decades to the extent of a courteous, deeply religious young man from the little village of Qarani on the Fijian island of Gau.

After an initial outing as a 20-year-old fly-half in the Fiji national fifteen in 1988, Serevi first hit the Sevens' world a year later in Hong Kong - the setting that was to become his perennial playground.

Sixteen times he held centre stage there; five times the inspiration in the title-winning team, four times ‘Player of the Tournament’, and twice (eight years apart) as captain of the IRB Rugby World Cup Sevens champion team in 1997 and 2005.

In 38 tournaments in the IRB World Sevens series Serevi scored 1310 points - 79 tries and 457 goals as Fiji won 13 titles, and his presence was never more influential than when he returned in 2004, after his foray into the world of fifteen-a-side club rugby, as player-coach, at the age of 36, to revitalise the flagging sevens' squad. His work culminated in Fiji's first-ever IRB Sevens' Overall title for the season, bringing an end to New Zealand's uninterrupted dominance.

But statistics reveal little of this man of exceptional rugby talents and tell you nothing of the spectator joy, let alone the bewilderment of the opponent, that he provided. Just as that liquid metal invariably slips through your fingers, it seemed time and time again the mercurial 5ft 8 magician would elude the grasp of would-be tacklers, with sleight of foot and sleight of hand, a jink, a feint, a step off left and right, startling acceleration off the mark, pace over a distance, speed of body, speed of thought.

But there was more. The indefinable and rare quality of a rugby brain that combines both a vision and tactical acumen that allows one to make the distinction between the very good and the brilliant performer.

Maybe these attributes are instinctive and cannot be taught, as if an extra sense or understanding beyond the norm; certainly Serevi expounded them to the full as we watched in awe. He just seemed to have a sense of timing, knowing when the right to time to run, when to pass or break, and always looking to exploit weaknesses in opponents' defence. Then there were those handling skills, those delicate light touches that made one catch one's breath, that we revelled in so often, that we vaguely called Fijian flair and flamboyance, because there weren't really any adequate words to describe his actions and audacity.

There was also the calming influence of the master, the man in control who imparted a discipline and an authority amongst a squad who's achilles has long been their frailty of temperament. And the culmination of his achievements came in the return of Fiji to their rightful place as champions of the world, when in Hong Kong 2005 his selected chosen band capped a fabulous tournament with some of the greatest rugby of any kind ever seen.

The memory will linger long of that beaming smile, son aloft his shoulders, as Waisale Serevi raised the Melrose Cup to the skies. Also of that defining moment in the semi-final as he, appropriately and unforgettably, swooped at pace and one-handed scooped up the loose ball off the ground to speed into the corner for a sudden - death winning try to deny England a place in the final.

Although he won 39 caps for Fiji, fifteens was never truly his métier, but that didn’t stop him turning out for clubs in Fiji, France, Japan or England – the most high profile being his time at Leicester Tigers with another Fijian 7s great Marika Vunibaka. The attributes, the skills, the requirements to excel in the modern codes of rugby fifteens and sevens are now so different; in essence the one with an emphasis on the physical, the other providing the space for a magician to weave his art. Strength in physical confrontation was never Serevi's greatest asset!

So, now, as we approach his 41st birthday on the 20th May, I'm happy and sad that he's finally leaving the stage at the top level - no doubt there'll be an occasional outing with one of his Fijian 'select' teams yet to come - but I don't want to see him as a shadow of what he has been - quite simply the greatest entertainer to be witnessed in action on the rugby field and the greatest Sevens' exponent of all time.

Of course he will be missed, but those joyous memories will linger, and we should all be grateful. He, however, would modestly thank the Lord for whatever talents he was gifted by God.

I can't help thinking that sevens was made for Serevi, but, oh my, how Waisale Serevi was made for Sevens!