Vegas means comedy, tragedy, happiness and sadness all at the same time.
Vegas! Often associated with professional sport: UFC, WWF and big boxing in Caesar’s. The NFL will be joining these sports in Sin City in the next couple of years as the Raider Nation will be moving from Oakland to a new stadium close to the famous Las Vegas Strip. And for the last few years the Sam Boyd stadium has hosted the USA leg of the HSBC Sevens Series, and it’s been a hit.
Los Angeles and San Diego were both tried in the past as host cities for the Sevens Series, but neither achieved the foothold needed for financial success. Vegas was different from the off. Appealing to travelling rugby supporters, Vegas offers an away trip unlike anything else.
The distractions of Vegas
If I sound like a Vegas tourist board employee, I apologise. Vegas definitely has its sell by date for visits. I’ve probably been to Vegas close to double figures and that is definitely enough; I have no intention of adding to that number anytime soon. I loved seeing the iconic buildings and settings I’d seen in the movies up close and Vegas is an amazing place that’s worth a trip for sure. But as my trips to Vegas added up, I slowly had enough of the dry air and chapped lips, and enough of the red eyes, not from gambling and drinking all night I must add, but from the air con in the hotel rooms. Vegas does get under your skin. I found some relief in Red Rock Canyon and the surrounding areas away from the Strip when we had our days off, but Vegas itself is a tricky place to keep players focused and in the zone. It also has its distractions on the rugby side.
The challenge of being different
The pitch at the Sam Boyd stadium is the narrowest on the Sevens Series by a long way; around 58 metres wide compared to the 70 metres you would experience on the plains of Twickenham and Dubai. The pitch in Vegas is also artificial, and this means the bounce is a lot ‘duller’ than on other fields so a lofty ‘kick off’ height is trickier to achieve. These differences means you have to play with depth and angle change to get the right outcomes at Vegas. I never minded the narrow pitch; it gave us coaches a great challenge and the need to ‘mixed it up’. I really enjoyed that.
Winds of change
The tournament format at Vegas is different as well: two games a day for three days, the same as the Olympic format. I like this format as it’s a great feeling waking up on day three with a semi final ahead of you. Certainly stiffens the sinews. The last couple of years have also brought really high winds sweeping in from the desert. I hope the winds decide to have a year off this weekend as it really causes some poor games. I thought the posts were going to blow down one year, and in my final Vegas tournament with Fiji my cap blew off in the final and actually sailed high over the stand! That was a surreal day all round. We had flown in from Fiji in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Winston only to be met by raging winds gusting across the Las Vegas Valley.
The tournament in 2016 also provides the memory of two of the Fijian players being refused on the plane to travel because they still had ‘cika’, a virulent form of conjunctivitis that swept through Fiji after the cyclone. I had to go online and see what the medical effects were: conjunctivitis.com, a sight for sore eyes (I know, terrible joke!).
Back in Fiji there was even a hit song about the virus: ‘I got Cika from my friend Mika and now I look like a dead Ika.’ (Ika is a fish)
The song sums up the positive spin Fijians can put on even the darkest moments in what was a terrible and devastating time for the country.
Vatemo Ravouvou and some other players also had a stomach bug that weekend, and we played with only 10 players on the first day. Vatemo, or ‘Pet’ as he is known, survived six games on a diet of Pringles. He said that Pringles were the only thing he wouldn’t throw up. He may have been pulling the wool over my eyes but he played very well! BBQ flavoured were his choice if anyone wants to see if it works for them.
Resilience, belonging and purpose
We were 15-0 down at half time against Australia in the final that year. Against the wind we won 21-15. Kitione Taliga came off the bench to be our own personal tornado on the pitch. My mum named her new cat Taliga after that game. It all felt fated that weekend and it was a little bit of sunshine for everyone back on the islands after the destruction and devastation caused by Cyclone Winston. Two years on and still people are homeless or living in tents as a result of the disaster that obliterated homes, schools, crops, and roads.
We all got pretty emotional after that final and we only made the semi finals a week later in Vancouver, but to some extent we didn’t mind. We had shown resilience and proven that so much in performance is about belonging and purpose. Like I said, it was a surreal weekend; in a city driven by opulence and materialism there were a bunch of boys from the Fijian villages, some who had no family homes to go back to, happier than any of those high-rollers on the Strip.