With the Rugby Sevens competition on the Gold Coast kicking off tomorrow, two-time Australian Commonwealth Games Rugby representative and Coast local Cameron Pither spoke to RUPA about his memories of playing in the competition.
Pither is widely regarded as one of the best players to ever represent Australian in Men’s Rugby Sevens. Incredibly strong and athletic, he was also extremely fast for his size and had a habit of rising to the occasion; all traits which helped him secure selection for the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, and the 2002 Games in Manchester.
1998 was the first time that Rugby Sevens featured at the Commonwealth Games, alongside cricket, and Pither said that there was a lot of scepticism before the games as to whether the sport belonged.
“There was a lot of hype around Rugby’s inclusion, and people just didn’t know whether Rugby would work within the competition,” he explains. “But the fans in Malaysia; they absolutely loved it! All of our matches were packed out, and in the finals, fans were climbing up over the fences as the stadium was at capacity; the atmosphere was electric!”
In 1998, eighteen teams were initially split into six pools of three, with Australia comfortably beating Cook Islands 50-0 and Cayman Islands 63-0, before beating Papua New Guinea 59-14 and Sri Lanka 70-5 to advance to the knockout stages.
“There were two teams who withdrew just before tournament, so the system was a bit confusing and basically over the first day it came down to how many tries you scored,” Pither explains.
“From memory, we were one or two tries short of beating New Zealand, so we were allocated to a tough side of the draw from the Quarter Finals onwards. We beat England (49-14), but then we had to play Fiji in our Semi Final.
“It had already been such a tough tournament, especially because it was so humid over there and the ground was hard like clay, so we were tiring but we led Fiji early on. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, (Rugby Sevens legend) Waisale Serevi sparked some magic and they were too good (Fiji winning 28-14).
“It was very disappointing, but then the boys got together and found a way to beat Samoa (33-12) and claim the Bronze Medal and reflecting on it now it certainly does mean a lot. My kids love to drag it out now and then, it’s in a little box just on the mantel piece, but I think it is underneath all the kids’ trophies now!”
The squad featured some superstars of the game, and Pither reflects fondly on some of the standout individual.
“We had Jim Williams who was exceptionally strong, and Brendon Williams was a guy who you just couldn’t touch, even in a small space. His 0-100 was just so quick and he could set the play up out of nowhere, and obviously David Campese was the master and he would just yell out where to go and you’d just do what he said! As a team we were so diverse; we had strength, height, speed and agility.”
The Australian cricket team at the time were world champions, and sharing the Commonwealth Games Village with Steve Waugh and his men was a real highlight for Pither and co.
“When we first went into the village, we found that a lot of the athletes were quite arrogant,” Pither says. “We’d say g’day, and they’d just look at you and didn’t give you too much.
“The cricketers, on the other hand, were sponsored by XXXX and they threw a welcoming party on the first night. I remember asking Steve Waugh if he had found some of the other athletes arrogant, and Kieren Perkins overheard and set me straight.
“He was just shaking his head looking at us, and he explained that these guys have trained for four years for just one event, one Games. Essentially, if they lost their focus and didn’t perform, they would lose their sponsorships and have nothing to show for themselves, whereas we had contracts in XVs Rugby to go back to. He certainly put it into perspective, and then as soon as the athletes had finished their events they were knocking on our doors, asking if we wanted to hang out together.”
Pither was a lot more prepared for what to expect in 2002, when he joined Richard Graham and Marc Stcherbina as the only three players to back up in Manchester.
Hopes were high that they could again claim a medal, with sixteen teams across four pools of four then becoming eight competing in the Cup Quarter Finals. Australia were on fire in the group stages, defeating Malaysia 55-0 and Trinidad & Tobago 59-0, before claiming top spot with a gutsy 19-12 win over Fiji. All seemed on track, with a Cup Quarter Final set up against Samoa, but a shock 12-10 loss sent Australia down to the Plate Semi Finals to play for pride alone.
“We had a very strong team and we played very well, but we went into the game against Samoa with a couple of injuries in key positions and we just couldn’t gel. We made far too many mistakes, turned over the ball too often, and Samoa were such a good team that they simply went through us.
“The irony is that if we had lost to Fiji in the pool stages, we would have been in the other side of the draw playing against South Africa, who weren’t as strong then as they are today, but in Rugby you just have to take each game as it comes. Full credit to Samoa, because they came out absolutely blazing, and they were determined to win and were too good that day.”
Australia would go on to defeat Wales 7-5 in the Plate Semi-Final before losing the Plate Final 36-12 against England, finishing a disappointing sixth overall.
Now, some 20 years after playing in the first ever Rugby Sevens competition at the Commonwealth Games, Pither remains involved in the game and is extremely excited to see the Australian Women’s team play in their first Games right on his doorstep.
“I’m really excited about the chances of both our Men’s and Women’s teams.
"It’s changed a lot since I played, with the Sevens programs being fully professional, but I definitely try and keep up with it and watch it on Fox Sports. I was impressed with the Men’s team in Sydney and at times in Vancouver, and our Women’s players are so strong. The AON Uni7s series that they have on at the moment is ideal preparation, and to be honest I think they need a similar one for the guys.
“I’m co-coaching the Bond University Men’s Rugby Sevens team, which is going really well. Already this year, we’ve won competitions in Newcastle and Byron Bay, so we are going really well and I really enjoy it. Ben Gollings is Coach of the Women’s team and they were Silver Medal winners of the AON Uni 7s series, so things are tracking nicely indeed.”
For details about the Rugby Sevens competition at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, including schedules, click here.
David Campese, Matthew Dowling, Ipolito Fenukitau, Richard Graham, Tyron Mandrusiak, Rick Nalatu, Cameron Pither, Marc Stcherbina, Brendon Williams, Jim Williams
2002 Commonwealth Games: Tim Atkinson, Mark Bartholomeusz, Scott Barton, Edward Carter, Richard Graham, Julian Huxley, Peter Hynes, Rob McDonald, Peter Miller, Cameron Pither, Marc Stcherbina, Tim Walsh