Ukraine have won the European Sevens Trophy - again - and will be in the Championship in 2024, along with Turkey. Ukraine also won the Trophy in 2021, and so should have been in the Championship last year, until the Russian invasion forced them to withdraw.
Lit Geller looks back on the second leg, completed yesterday in Budapest.
The second round of Trophy lived up to the expectations and had a lot of surprises and excitement. Now you might think – what? This isn’t championship, it’s not world series teams, what’s so exciting? But! This is where you’re wrong. Our sport is small, and it’s the human stories behind the teams that scrape for every piece of funding and player numbers, that one can really connect to.
Take Bulgaria for example. A mid-tier team from Conference who, under new coach and former player Maya Ilieva, got promoted for the first time in their history. Yes, they did finish with 10 losses, but, they showed great fighting spirit all the way up to their last game, and made a lot of teams work harder than expected against them.
Moldova, who for years struggled to show new faces on their squad and seemed very lost for a while after the departure of the great Oxana Banuci, showed up with a very young and fierce team. They too go back to Conference, but should feel very confident about next year as they showed tremendous spark in their games.
Israel finished 12th last year, and proved that timing is everything. They won one game in the first tournament, against Norway – which was enough to send them to the final 8. And then again, in the second round, beat Moldova to make it to the 9-10 final. Much improved performance from them. Their 9th place overall matches the country’s best achievement to date.
My dad has a saying: “You’re gonna get in so much trouble you’ll have to pull yourself out by the tips of your ears”. That is exactly what Norway found themselves with - - a surprising loss and an even more surprising loss to Moldova in the first round, sent them to a relegation battle. However, Coach Bill Tirikula’s decision to have the team play in the European Games seemed to have paid off – they were considerably more confident, notched up an important win in the pool phase and eventually finished 9th – which coupled with Moldova’s 11th finish, was enough to leave them in Trophy for another year.
The 7th-8th was what people might have expected last round – the two teams coming up from conference, Latvia and Austria, battling each other. Latvia looked drained by the end of the tournament, but should be absolutely stoked with their 22-5 win over Austria. For a team that for all intents and purposes wasn’t even meant to be in Trophy, it’s a tremendous achievement. Their 6th place over all is a huge surprise to everyone – but a good surprise!
Austria should feel pretty nifty too. They had two terrific performances, and became a team that nobody wanted to bet against; unbelieve really for a team that came out of Conference. This is their 2nd time in Trophy mind you, the first one being a short one year stint that was enough for them to understand exactly what changes were needed to impress – and boy oh boy, were they impressive! 7th overall, a fantastic finish.
Denmark, playing for the first time in years without their talismanic captain Rosaluna Lindstad Gavagna moved from 11th last year, to 9th in the first round and unbelievably - - after grabbing one of the #3 sots going up to the QF, found themselves in the 5-6 final after beating Latvia, leading to their best ever finish ever at 8th overall.
The cup semi-finals and finals were a repeat of the first round. Both Georgia and Finland lost to the finalists, although Turkey were made to work very hard for their 17-7 win over Finland. In a reverse score, Georgia played what could arguably be their best game of the tournament, beating Finland in a tight 12-7 game. While Finland are a self made team, Georgia are a well prepared team, in which the union has (finally) started investing more than before. For this well oiled team, this season is probably a disappointment.
On to the final – Turkey and Ukraine met (once again), and while the bottom line is that Ukraine won, this game was not similar at all to the final played 3 weeks ago. Ukraine looked bruised and tired, whereas Turkey came on with a lot of fire and self-belief - - you would have to think their experience in the European Games, playing against much stronger and faster team, gave them a good mental edge for this weekend. That being said – Ukraine are athletic, aggressive, and they are also the Trophy champions with 2 straight final wins. A fairytale ending for this team that nobody was really sure will be able to turn up! Ukraine, I would like to note, are also responsible to one of the most bizarre things to grace the Rugby Europe tournaments - - where Olga Surkova, who refereed in the first round of the Trophy tournament in Zagreb, showed up as the 13th player for Ukraine, playing against teams she refereed just 3 weeks ago. What a weird experience for the opposing players!
So obviously, this year’s Trophy wasn’t similar to previous years. With the weird mix and match Rugby Europe did, it turned into a weird hybrid of Trophy and Conference, and teams were more matched than ever before – leading to really interesting and tense games. Next year, Romania and Sweden will be relegated down and those two teams will most likely run through the tournament again. The return of Switzerland will also bring back another traditional side. And don’t think Andorra will not be prepared, even though they’re coming in as the 2nd ranked team from conference.
While I have this soapbox, I have to say that the one area where Rugby Europe HAVE to make an effort to get better in, is investing in their referees throughout the season so the various European championships aren’t referee development clinics. More so when the entire team changes between tournaments, and teams have to get used to a new team of referees and the misalignment between calls borders on ridiculous. Not that the refereeing level was not high - - but it could and can be better if Rugby Europe chooses to think outside the box and invest in their referees.
Last but not least - - the final was played at a ridiculous hour, as the men started their games as well. There are surely economical reasons behind combining the tournaments, but not sure if player welfare is considered? Jus thinking out loud.
All In all, the 2023 Trophy series was entertaining and for those who kept track, provided real edge-of-your-seat experience. I hope next year will be just as exciting, if not more!
Pools for next year (assuming Sweden finish 11th and Romania 12th):
Pool A: Sweden, Latvia, Austria, Andorra
Pool B: Romania, Hungary, Denmark, Switzerland
Pool C: Finland, Georgia, Israel, Norway
Pool A: Ukraine 59-12 Bulgaria; Austria 19-12 Hungary; Austria 29-5 Bulgaria; Ukraine 33-10 Hungary; Ukraine 41-0 Austria; Hungary 54-5 Bulgaria
Pool B: Latvia 22-10 Israel; Turkey 29-12 Norway; Latvia 17-10 Norway; Turkey 29-0 Israel; Israel 7-15 Norway; Turkey 27-5 Latvia
Pool C: Georgia 15-5 Denmark; Finland 17-0 Moldova; Georgia 17-0 Moldova; Finland 21-12 Denmark; Denmark 17-0 Moldova; Finland 12-10 Georgia
Quarter-Finals: Ukraine 36-0 Denmark; Turkey 24-0 Hungary; Finland 14-0 Austria; Latvia 5-15 Georgia
9th-12th Place Semi-Finals: Norway 48-5 Bulgaria; Israel 24-15 Moldova
5th-8th Place Semi Finals: Denmark 20-12 Latvia; Hungary 19-12 Austria
Semi-Finals: Ukraine 33-0 Georgia; Turkey 17-7 Finland
11th Place: Bulgaria 10-26 Moldova
9th Place: Norway 10-5 Israel
7th Place: Latvia 22-5 Austria
5th Place: Denmark 5-12 Hungary
3rd Place: Georgia 12-7 Finland
Final: Ukraine 14-7 Turkey