As Mathew Tait busies himself with off-pitch matters in his role as general manager and festival director of Emirates Dubai 7s, the first leg of the relaunched HSBC SVNS 2024, it is easy to forget that he once lit up the sevens arena as a player.
Having been badly exposed as a raw 18-year-old on his England test debut against Wales in Cardiff in 2005, Tait found redemption in the shorter format of the game at the Commonwealth Games the following year.
Playing alongside the likes of Danny Care and Tom Varndell, the winger/full-back exorcised the ghosts from his Six Nations’ baptism of fire – when he was picked up and dropped by both Gavin Henson and Andy Robinson – with a string of electrifying performances on the World Series in the build-up to Melbourne, and then at the multi-sport event itself.
“I get asked relatively frequently to look back on my career – and that trip, where we had a week on the Gold Coast, played in the Commonwealth Games and then went to Bali, Hong Kong – where we beat Fiji in the last play of the game – and on to Singapore, remains the fondest time of my professional career. It was an amazing five to six weeks,” he said.
Tait finished the Commonwealth Games as top try-scorer, crossing the line 11 times, and was considered one of the players of the tournament. Not bad for a 20-year-old whose confidence had recently taken a massive knock.
“It wasn’t long after my debut against Wales in ’05 hadn’t gone as planned and sevens was used – rehabilitation is probably the wrong word – to help me fall back in love with the game a little bit. It played to all my strengths, like running fast.
“I was lucky to have Steve Black and John Fletcher as my coaches at Newcastle because they saw the importance of sevens to my development. It helped to get me back on the horse.”
After memorable wins against a star-studded Australia and Fiji, England met New Zealand in the final.
The All Blacks Sevens hadn’t lost a match in Commonwealth Games history and were closing in on a third straight title with players of the calibre of Liam Messam and Cory Jane in their team.
Tait admits he was a bag of nerves in the tunnel before kick-off at the Telstra Dome, but that didn’t stop him continuing his blistering form with a spectacular try after just three minutes.
England stayed in the hunt for the gold medal until two late tries saw New Zealand run out 29-21 winners.
“I remember being really disappointed because I don’t think they were that much better than us. It was just a couple of missed tackles, that was the frustrating part,” he said.
“Sometimes you can take it if you feel like you were second best but it was one of those ‘what if’ moments that I had throughout my career.”
The 37-year-old officially retired from rugby in February 2019 and worked for financial services company Oakwell Sports Advisory for a couple of years before moving to the United Arab Emirates in November 2022 to take on his latest role.
The former Newcastle and Leicester player is responsible for developing commercial and strategic opportunities across both the Emirates’ Dubai 7s and the Sevens Stadium. He oversees logistics, social media, marketing and manages the teams and the event calendar.
With the much-anticipated HSBC SVNS 2024 series kicking off at the weekend, the father of two has been busy setting up what is set to be an action-packed weekend of sport, live performances and experiences.
While making sure the Emirates' Dubai 7s lives up to its billing as rugby’s biggest party is Tait’s number one priority, the action on the pitch will always captivate him.
“It’s the game in its purest form because it is about one-on-one confrontation, speed and skill.”
Tait has no desire to set foot on the pitch again, he has too much to do off it. But being in and around the 12 men’s and women’s teams is one aspect that reminds him of days gone by.
“I enjoy the interactions with the teams. We are one big collective group and are learning skills and insights from each other. Our goal is to deliver a world-class service that shows the world how good we are. Days are long but it's worth it in the end.
“These types of events take around 11 to 12 months to deliver, so it's full-on until the last note has played on the final day.”
By Jon Newcombe