Isolated as an outpost at the tip of Australia’s Northern Territory, Darwin is a sleeping giant of a city often put on the back burner by tourists for the razzamatazz of Sydney and Melbourne. But for rugby, party and wildlife lovers the excuses can stop, it’s time to hit the ‘Top End’. For one weekend every January, Darwin transforms itself into a haven for some of the most exciting and talented rugby players on the planet – The Hottest Sevens is officially in town. 1989 marked the birth of an official ‘Territory Sevens’ attracting quality Australasian clubs with the names of Duavata, Potoroos, Hong Kong, NZ Battalion, Sydney Uni and Randwick all appearing on the trophy. In 2004 it was felt the tournament needed to transform itself to realise its true potential as one of the ‘go-to’ southern hemisphere events on the circuit.
By Robin Heymann
Isolated as an outpost at the tip of Australia’s Northern Territory, Darwin is a sleeping giant of a city often put on the back burner by tourists for the razzamatazz of Sydney and Melbourne. But for rugby, party and wildlife lovers the excuses can stop, it’s time to hit the ‘Top End’. For one weekend every January, Darwin transforms itself into a haven for some of the most exciting and talented rugby players on the planet – The Hottest Sevens is officially in town.
A tournament grows
1989 marked the birth of an official ‘Territory Sevens’ attracting quality Australasian clubs with the names of Duavata, Potoroos, Hong Kong, NZ Battalion, Sydney Uni and Randwick all appearing on the trophy. In 2004 it was felt the tournament needed to transform itself to realise its true potential as one of the ‘go-to’ southern hemisphere events on the circuit.
Inspired by Chief Executive Tim Heath, and the rest of the committee at the Northern Territory Rugby Union, the ‘Darwin Hottest Sevens’ was created. A partnership with the Friends of Rugby NT and the local community has helped Territory businesses to increasingly lend their support. Heineken have come on board as a sponsor, continuing their long standing relationship with rugby, giving it even more commercial impetus.
“We substantially increased the prize money in 2005 with teams coming from the Pacific, Asia, NSW, South Australia, Queensland, Africa along with the locals of Northern Territory,” said Heath.
“It’s important to make sure that club teams were still part of this great event and were given the opportunity to mix it with the best”.
The Northern Territory committed support for the next three years to the tune of $300,000. The event is now recognised as a NT Major Event, whilst the ABC TV cameras roll here too. With more exposure in rugby circles the event could start to attract rugby lovers from the northern-hemisphere.
Heath has high hopes for this year’s event (the weekend before Australia Day) with the tournament growing exponentially in the prize money stakes as team participation increases. This year also sees the small Pacific island nation of Guam – Continental Jets – make their debut at the event, highlighting the growing international representation.
"Guam saw this as a really good opportunity to come across and bring the team to an event that's got some quality and they can get some experience from it.
“The quality of Men’s and Women’s teams and where they come from would have to suggest that it is one of the strongest tournaments outside the IRB World Series taking place in the southern Hemisphere. Also the prize money (AUD $20,000 for Cup winners) on offer is providing a strong attraction”.
Arguably the quality of players that Heath has bought on board gives the event its real substance. Names such as Ryder, Serevi, Gollings, and Valence would get the rubber stamped sealed of approval for any rugby tournament going. International teams will make the journey to the ‘Top End’ often operating under the guise of established elite teams.
The tournament is proud of its global reach with teams and players travelling far and wide. ULR Samurai International is a prime example of this with young and old elite sevens specialists mixing from England, Australia, and New Zealand. Former Aussie sevens player Tim Walsh captains the side and is excited about the prospects of what is effectively an international barbarians side.
“This year we have recruited the current world's best sevens player and Samurai veteran Ben Gollings of England. We also have twenty-time IRB tournament veteran from Australia Ant Sauer and 2008 Australian Schoolboy Kenny Robinson, many players have launched their international career through representing Samurai,” said Walsh.
In recent times the South Sea Drifters, jam-packed with Fijian Internationals have ruled the roost in Darwin picking up the winners cheque for the last three years. Under the stewardship of sevens deity Waisale Serevi, the Drifters use the event as key preparation for a hectic IRB World Sevens Series schedule.
Walsh is adamant the Drifters, although formidable opponents, are definitely not unbeatable in Darwin. “The beauty of the sport and particularly sevens is that just about anything can happen. We have seen the top sides tumble to far weaker sides throughout the IRB series.
“Every win brings you one closer to a loss! Samurai beat the South Sea Drifters in Dubai in November but I am sure they are out for revenge,” said Walsh.
As well as the Drifters, there are three other purely Fijian sides assembling at Darwin with former winners Davetalevu, Red Rock, Uprising Beach Resort all set to be a handful.
“The hot conditions in Darwin are similar to that on the island; the defending champs certainly deserve their favourites title.
“There are many great teams attending this tournament and I think anyone of about four teams can knock them off.”
The Aussie Spirit side, coached by national coach, Michael O’Conner, will also be looking to impress on home soil and have included some of the hottest prospects on the circuit. Richard Kingi is one of these, with his electric feet, has set tongues wagging on the IRB World Series circuit.
“Luke Morahan is quick and never stops working, and don’t forget Damon Murphy a veteran Australian sevens player forcing his way back into the team for the World Cup,” added Walsh.
More than a rugby experience
Buying into the philosophy of the modern-day international sevens tournament, Heath and his cohorts have made sure that there is a fiesta feel for the expected 10,000 fans.
“It’s a typical carnival 7s atmosphere with good music, festive activity, food stalls, beverage stands, fancy-dress prizes, and a sold out Rugby luncheon on the Friday”
The opportunity to play at night in strength sapping conditions is an ultimate test for a sevens player, but Darwin’s friendly and rugby loving Territorians are never short in their appreciation.
“The harsh, hot and dry conditions, the big crowds and the floodlit entertainment provides a sevens event to be truly remembered,” said Tim Walsh.
On the back of the recent hit movie ‘Australia’, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, and the ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ campaign it seems tourism is the buzz word in the land down under. With the Northern Territory reaching out for some exposure, events like the Hottest 7s can only be beneficial in helping to reach out globally.
“Rugby is increasingly a sport with global appeal that is attracting significant audiences in the established rugby playing countries as well as the emerging new ones," Commented Fleur Burrows, Niche Marketing Manager at Tourism NT.
Perhaps suffering from the reputation as a remote city, Darwin actually considers itself as ‘The Gateway to Asia’ being nearer to Jakarta then Sydney. The notorious "strip and prawn" bars and beer swelling reputation has been replaced by a region full of cultural diversity, a chilled out young buzz that integrates with the locals.
“Over two days the city buzzes with excitement and once the action on pitch is over fans can relax in this vibrant harbour city where the focus is on the outdoors – movie-going, sailing, markets and dining in the city’s fantastic restaurants,” added Burrows.
‘Cage of Death - Crocosaurus Cove’ is certainly causing a stir proving popular with adrenaline junkies snapping up the opportunity to stand toe to toe to with a saltwater croc - ‘Choppa’. If you’re not a thrill seeker how about a soothing swim in the waterholes of Litchfield National Park. Wander through the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets or what about some quality fishing in waters that bubble with mangrove jack and mullet. The fiery tropical sun of the north paves for a dramatic finale each evening - perfect with a coldie in hand.
The Heineken Hottest Sevens has found itself to be a truly unique experience that Tim Heath believes to the perfect addition to a rugby lover’s CV.
“This really is an international tournament in one of the more beautiful, remote and friendly locations of the world.”
Just watch out for 'Choppa' the croc….