Originally published 24/02/2019 on rugby.com.au. To view click here
At the end of a day when Kiama’s famous blowhole was roaring like a wounded prop, Manly Marlins huffed and puffed, and brought the house down.
The atmosphere at the 47th Kiama Sevens on Saturday had reached fever pitch by Cup Final time at the Showgrounds, and a decisive try from Australian Men Sevens representative Josh Turner secured Manly’s 19-10 victory over a Gordon UTS side featuring its own high-profile professionals Rod Davies and Lachie Miller.
The win was another cherry on top for the Shute Shield club’s pre season, after victory at Crescent Head Sevens earlier this month, but rugby and rambunctiousness were the clear victors on the day as this remarkable tournament two hours south of Sydney steams toward an unbeaten half-century.
Its presence on the final weekend of February has been the one constant in an ever-changing pre-season calendar since 1973, growing from humble beginnings as a social competition with eight sides, to a multi-division 44-team men’s and women’s event offering $35,000 in prizemoney.
Blessed with possibly the most beautiful home ground in the nation adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and the town’s surf beach, Kiama Rugby Club organisers put their success down to being dynamic in a changing marketplace and a constant community focus.
“We keep tweaking it each year, but all the prizemoney now goes back to clubs and the grassroots, and we do as much as we can to create a flow-on effect for businesses in our local area,” says long-time tournament director Mark Bryant, who moved to the town in 1991 and holds the games record at the club.
While it hosted 54 teams at its biggest in the 1990s, the tournament now excludes international and invitational sides, and has settled on a format of 44 Rugby Australia-registered clubs split into four men’s and two women’s divisions.
“One of the big things we put in place about four years ago was no international sides, because the Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane sides weren’t coming because of the Fijian (invitational) teams,” Bryant says.
“They’re fantastic rugby players, the crowds love it and I had some arguments with the life members, but we couldn’t fill the other spots.
“They also spend no money in the community, they just take the prizemoney home, and that’s fine – they’ve won – but we made a conscious decision to only have club sides.”
Traditionally in Sevens, results in the first round of the tournament determined whether you progressed to the main or consolation draw, but the advent of different divisions from the outset has also proved a successful formula and reduced injuries.
“They all said they wanted to play the Randwicks and Gordons but, at the end of the day, they were getting hurt and belted on the scoreboard,” Bryant says of the country-based clubs.
“Now they play their own competition and they get three full games, and their own final.”
This strategy creates a sequence of six competitive finals to cap the day’s play on the main pitch, and the crowd relished a try-saving tackle by Goulburn’s Jackson Reardon to win the Country Cup decider against Bungendore just as much as Manly’s dramatic triumph.
A howling wind coated everyone and everything with a thick layer of sea spray, possessed empty wheelie bins and made a mockery of pop-up gazebos, but the rain held off, unlike 1977 when a near monsoon forced the event to be abandoned.
Warringah’s Ratettes created a whirlwind of their own, dominating the Womens Vase on the back of 11 tries from Australian Youth Sevens representative Faith Nathan, and preventing a Manly double by defeating the Mermaids 41-7 in the final.
Jindabyne’s brutal Bushpigs outmuscled Goulburn 30-0 to win the Women’s Country Cup, and Central Coast Sevens specialists Lakes pipped locals Shoalhaven 22-14 in the Bowl Final.
Sydney Subbies club Oatley scored a popular 15-5 win over Shute Shield opposition Easts in the Plate Final, and adopted Sooty Duncan as their local mascot out of the new Kiama Rugby hospitality area, which combined face painting, fancy dress and a dee jay playing a parade of popular hits.
“We went to Wellington Sevens about 10 years ago, and a few of us have been talking about getting it going properly, and we finally got some money together this year and we’re having a cracking day,” says Ryan Burke, coordinator and ex-Kiama five eighth.
“Everyone’s associated with our local Kiama club, and they’ve still go to pay for entry, but it just rewards everyone’s efforts during the last year and gets all the friends and family interested in supporting right at the start of the coming season.”
Burke’s initiative is perhaps a necessity of the success of Bryant’s more exclusive hospitality area, the main moneyspinner for the Kiama club, which turns into the perfect bunkhouse for the country-based players and their swags when they’re finally turfed out of the Kiama Inn Hotel on Saturday night.
It’s a far cry from when Grenfell Panthers talisman Al Liebeck first visited in 1984, and he would have been playing again this year at the age of 56 if not for a recent shoulder reconstruction.
“We had a bus with about 20 blokes on it, no accommodation, we pitched a tent over there on the hill. It rained, so we ended up sleeping on the bus,” says the Panther legend.
“We played about two or three games that first time and we all just loved it, so we kept coming back.
“It’s good for team bonding, we’ve got lots of young fellas, and a lot of them have come down here and that bond and mateship will hopefully flow through the season back home.”
Grenfell used to take a post-tournament dip at the surf beach until about a decade ago when a trio from the club were caught in a rip and had to be saved by some more sea-savvy Sydney-siders, but they still observe another tradition; ‘kidnapping’ the tournament director as they leave town on Sunday.
“They usually let me go at Jamberoo pub, but one year the wife had to pick me up from Robertson – I’ve been warned I’m making my own way home next time,” says Bryant, who began his playing career at Cowra in South West NSW.
Goulburn Dirty Reds skipper Jordan Wilcox had planned on heading back up the Jamberoo Mountain Road on Saturday night, but was having a change of heart as he held the club’s giant novelty cheque for winning the Country Cup.
“A few of the boys have am AirBnb in town, so maybe we’ll just have to bunk in together,” laughs the 27-year-old carpenter, who was visiting Kiama for the first time.
“You can tell why it’s been running for so long, it’s just a great day of footy, and an awesome atmosphere.”
Bryant knows this flow back to many of the businesses which have supported the tournament for decades is crucial to its ongoing success, but he’s also looked further afield in recent years, bringing the Wollongong franchise of wealth management firm Morgans on board as a major sponsor.
“You’ve got to have cash – sponsorship – otherwise you’re relying on bar sales and no one drinks too much any more, you don’t make money out of food,” he says, during an interview at the town’s Little Blowhole Art Bar, where a month-long exhibition ‘Rugby Life’ recently raised $3,000 to help send local juniors on overseas tours.
“A lot of tournaments haven’t survived, like Sawtell and Grenfell, and a lot of clubs have seen it as an easy fundraiser but, when it comes down to it, they’re not making a profit.
“But I do try and look for support outside the community, because Kiama gets hammered with all the other sports.”
The club’s professional approach includes a formal sponsorship proposal backed by research the club undertook for Destination Kiama which shows 20,000 people visit the region throughout the week of the Sevens, spending just shy of $1 million.
“Businesses like the Sebel Kiama and Raine and Horne, they’ve been on board for 10 years, so I don’t ask for an increase each year, but they’ve all been warned they’re going to cop it in 2021 for the 50th,” Bryant says.
Organisers have grand plans for this landmark in 2022; including boosting prizemoney to $50,000 and turning Kiama into a Sigatoka-styled rugby town for the week, evoking the atmosphere of the small Fijian community in Nadroga province which produced All Black Waisake Naholo, Wallaby Lote Tuqiri and countless members of Fiji’s world-beating Sevens teams.
With HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series events in Las Vegas and Vancouver over the next fortnight, Aussie Men’s assistant coach Stephen Hoiles was also among the 3,500 strong crowd at Kiama yesterday.
He was there to monitor the performances of Turner, Rod Davies, Miller and Will Maddocks of Easts, but was reminded of the grassroots vibe by another Grenfell tradition at half time in the Cup Final; a compulsory streak for the two youngest team members.
“Look, if it’s not in the women’s final, and nowhere near the helicopter bringing in the trophies, then I just look the other way,” Bryant says.
Liebeck has his own ritual every year at the Showgrounds which he observes in memory of the club’s legendary manager Bill Eastaway, who passed away just over a decade ago.
“Bill was our manager basically right from the start (of the club), and he used to come down the week before with wife Jan and stay in Kiama,” Liebeck says, perhaps with a bit of sea mist in his eyes.
“He’d have everything ready when we got here, all our jumpers would be hanging on the fence, he’d cook us breakfast, and make sure we behaved reasonably well on the Friday night.
“We used to be set up on the top oval, under the same tree, and I always go up and sit under that tree and have a beer for Bill while I’m here.”
“He was a good man, and it’s a shame he’s not still here. He loved this place.”