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Rugby Sevens: Mismatches can't stop the party at Ibrox

AS romantic gestures go, James Collette's proposal to long-time girlfriend Louise Sargison was right up there with the best.

Scotland's Mark Bennett, centre, is chased down by Barbados pair Dario Stoute and Nicholas Jackman    Photograph: SNS
Scotland's Mark Bennett, centre, is chased down by Barbados pair Dario Stoute and Nicholas Jackman Photograph: SNS

The 32-year-old IT specialist from London had arranged everything perfectly for the moment when he got down on one knee in the centre of the Ibrox pitch and popped the question. Perfectly, that is, apart from one little detail.

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That's because if you wanted to get your new life together off to the best start, you wouldn't choose an occasion where the theme was one of hopeless mismatches. Not that the 45,000 crowd seemed to mind, for they roared their approval loudly when 27-year-old Louise accepted, but you still hope that the backdrop does not turn out to be propitious.

By the time Collette entered the Rugby Sevens arena, New Zealand had hammered Canada 39-0, Australia had smashed Sri Lanka 62-7, Wales had demolished Malaysia 52-8 and South Africa had posted 36 points without reply against Trinidad and Tobago. This was no place to celebrate the meeting of equals.

Not until late in the evening, at least, when the matches that would have a critical bearing on prospects took place. The challenge for all teams was to finish in the top two of their respective groups and thereby earn the right to chase medals rather than consolation prizes on the final day. Scotland duly finished the job, beating Canada 21-5 in their final pool game to earn their quarter-final place. The Canadians had beaten Scotland in the semi-finals of the Glasgow world series event at Scotstoun in May, but the Scots took their revenge clinically and cleverly, tries from Lee Jones, Richie Vernon and Mark Bennett helping them over the line.

Scotland achieved the result without picking Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont, the biggest names from the full Test side, in their starting line-up.

Wales have shown little interest in sevens in recent years, but they also found a way through to the last eight, albeit from a rather easier pool. They could have made life easier still, but they slipped up against Samoa in their final outing, losing 19-12 and allowing the Islanders to go through as group winners. England had also cruised through their first two games, against Sri Lanka and Uganda, but they had rather tougher opponents in their concluding tie when they came up against Australia. The English led 7-5 at the interval, but went down 7-15 at the end of a bad-tempered encounter.

Scotland had come through their earlier pool games and now face South Africa in the quarter-finals today after the expected loss to New Zealand and the expected hammering of Barbados, a side distinguished only by the fact their line-up included Anthony Bayne-Charles, the son of Seventies disco (and Eighties R&B) chart-topper Billy Ocean.

At one point, Bayne-Charles explained that he wanted to pursue a career in music, but was concentrating on rugby for the moment. On yesterday's evidence - a 68-5 loss to Canada preceded Barbados's 56-0 smashing by Scotland, he might like to start practising his scales sooner rather than later.

Barbados deserved sympathy - they were only added to the draw when Nigeria pulled out - but the same could not be said about the All Blacks after their 17-14 defeat of Scotland. I have long been troubled by the deadly earnest approach the New Zealanders take to sevens, but that seriousness spilled over into downright cynicism in their desperate efforts to repel a late fightback by Scotland.

The Scots had made a rod for their own backs by allowing their opponents to race into a 17-0 half-time lead with two tries by Sherwin Stowers and one from Ben Lam, but they found their shape superbly after the turn and started hammering away at the the New Zealand defence. Lee Jones raced over for two tries, and as the All Blacks panicked they lost Gillies Kaka to the sin bin for ball-killing.

Then, astonishingly, they were reduced to five players when Tim Mikkelso was penalised for a deliberate knock-on. By the end, the four-times champions were hanging on grimly. They were also hanging on illegally, Mikkelson having been allowed to re-enter the fray a few moments from the end before his two minutes on the naughty step were up.

Scotland had grounds to lodge a protest, although it would probably be pushing it to say that Mikkelson's premature return had any material effect on the outcome. An error was made that had no direct impact on the outcome of the game," admitted Scotland coach Stevie Gemmell. "Just as we look at our errors, all referees analyse their performances and we hope this decision will be taken on board."

That, though, was the only really sour note on a day that had a party atmosphere from start to finish and the rugby crowd, contributed magnificently. Yes, the enforced jollity could be a little jarring at times, but only the most dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon would seriously question the details of the event. Scotland have kept up local interest. They will need a lot of luck to get close to a medal, but they are very much alive. Another wonderful day of competition lies in store.

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