Australia’s rugby men have earned a remarkable triumph at the Hong Kong Sevens, winning the global circuit’s blue riband event for the first time in 34 years.
Coached by John Manenti, the side proved their world series triumph may be just the start of something big on Sunday as they began their 2022-23 campaign by beating Olympic and World Cup champions Fiji 20-17 in the final after a nail-biting finish.
“How good are the Aussies?” beamed their captain, Nick Malouf, after his side had pulled off the first Hong Kong triumph for his nation since rugby’s amateur era in 1988.
Nathan Lawson’s thrilling late gold medal-winning try against the Fijians was a magnificent conclusion to a day when the side affectionately known as “Manenti’s misfits” once again demonstrated fantastic resilience, skill and nerve to win their three knockout matches in unlikely fashion.
In the final, they had to come back from 12-0 down against the five-time defending champs Fiji and eventually snatched victory with just 22 seconds left on the clock after being 17-15 behind.
All looked lost as the Fijians earned a penalty in the last minute but wonderful work from Maurice Longbottom saw him rag Manueli Maisamoa and the ball fall loose, before Stuart Dunbar scooped it up and put the flying Lawson over in the corner for the golden try.
It took a video review before the try, eked out while two tacklers tried to bundle Lawson over the touchline, was awarded, prompting wild celebrations in the Hong Kong Stadium.
The electric Longbottom, the junior Rabbitohs’ rugby league convert who was once dubbed “too small for senior footy”, proved Australia’s biggest hero over the three days, culminating with his player of the final award.
Earlier, they were Houdini-like in fighting back from 19-5 down in the quarter-finals against Ireland, earning victory only the full-time gong had sounded, with Longbottom finishing off a dazzling team try to seal the 26-19 win.
Then in the semis, after he’d converted Josh Turner’s earlier try, it was Longbottom’s nerveless penalty in extra-time that edged them to a nail-biting 10-7 win over France.
“It’s pretty surreal,” he said. “In six years of playing sevens I’ve never got this award, and I’ve finally ticked it off, so I’m over the moon.”
But he felt all his teammates had been outstanding too as the Australians defied the odds after injuries to two key men, Jimmy Turner and Darby Lancaster, had left them short of resources.
It was Jimmy “The Jet” Turner who had made the memorable observation on Saturday that the Australians were a team of “misfits and weirdos”, assembled on a shoestring by Manenti, who’d rebooted unlikely players from Sydney club rugby and fringe Super Rugby talents.
“I’m just so proud of our group, mate,” said Malouf, a Queenslander.
“We did well last year to win the world series and to come out here and back it up to win the first one in Hong Kong, mate, it’s blowing my mind!
“Incredible – but I think we’re cutting a few years off our coach’s life leaving it so late.”
The final was a classic, with Fiji’s incredible Hong Kong record dented thanks to a double from the superb Henry Hutchison and another score from Tim Clements, before Lawson’s clincher.