2016 New Zealand Sevens Recap
Heading into Wellington, there were a number of interesting storylines set to play out over two days. The biggest question was whether the shocking upsets in Cape Town would continue in Wellington. Another big question was whether New Zealand could get past the injury bug and return to form to defend the 2015 New Zealand Sevens title. For fans of team USA, the major question was whether the hot start for the Eagles would carry into the second pair of tournaments with the United States drawing an extremely difficult pool. As usual, the World Series did not disappoint for excitement.
For the home crowd, Pool A was the focus. The All Blacks Sevens had struggled mightily in Cape Town and would need to show major improvement to claim their first cup title since the 2015 New Zealand Sevens. Making big news on that front was the addition of two time world champion Sonny Bill Williams. Joining the All Blacks Sevens in the pool were rival and electric South Africa. The blitzbokke were fresh off a victory at home, winning the South Africa Sevens in the last stop. Also intriguing in Pool A was Scotland–the bowl winner in the last tournament after blanking England–looking to crack into the cup round for the first time this season. Rounding out the pool was Russia looking for a first win in pool play this season.
As expected, South Africa and New Zealand tore through the pool. South Africa handled Scotland (28–5) and then blew out Russia (54–0). New Zealand was no less merciless, defeating Russia (38–7) and easing by Scotland (27–7). In the pool consolation match, Scotland edged Russia (19–17). In the pool decider, New Zealand claimed the famous victory. At the half, South Africa led by two points. In the second half, New Zealand claimed a 12–7 lead into the final minute before South Africa scored to pull in front 14–12. It would take a miracle for New Zealand to come from behind, and a miracle finish there was. Debutant Sonny Bill Williams set up the match winner with a marvelous offload to help New Zealand to its first 3–0 day 1 of the season.
Pool B brought less intrigue. Although Argentina was the top seed, smart money was on Fiji to head the pool. Fiji pushed aside all comers, besting Japan (45–7), Wales (33–7), and Argentina (31–10) to top the pool. Argentina joined as quarterfinalist with wins over Wales (19–12) and Japan (31–14). Wales salvaged some pride with a 33–28 victory over Japan. Wales, the former Rugby World Cup Sevens champion has fallen to a persistent bowl-round contender.
Pool D, like Pool B also followed a predictable script in the win column, but not in scoring column. The Aussies were the odds on favorite to top the pool, and so they did, but not without trouble. In their first match, Australia dropped behind wayward Portugal 12–0 at the half. The second half proved more favorable as Australia posted 19 unanswered to take the match. Against Canada, Australia reached a 26–12 lead in the second half, but had trouble putting Canada away. In the end, team Canada closed the margin to 26–22 with a chance to pull it out in the end. Similarly, in the pool decider, Kenya took a 12–7 lead to the break. Australia managed two tries in the last two minutes of play to come away the resilient 17–12 victor. Joining Australia was Kenya. Aside from a loss to Australia, the Kenyans made short work of Pool D: 31–7 over Canada and 26–5 over Portugal. Canada, as has become so often the case after missing the cup round, took out its frustration in the last match of pool play. Team Canada blasted Portugal 42–7. With the loss, Portugal fell to 0–13 on the season.
To American fans, and fans without a dog in the fight, Pool C was the most interesting. Joining team USA was England–cup runner-up in Dubai and Bowl runner-up in Cape Town–France–third-place finisher in Cape Town–and Samoa–one of only four nations to ever win the World Series. The Eagles entered the tournament having reached the cup quarterfinal in every stop since winning the bowl in Tokyo in 2015. That is four in a row in series play and eight of the last nine. The Pool C draw provided a serious threat to extending that streak.
The Eagles started Day 1 against Samoa. The Samoans, once the juggernaut of the Series have fallen into disarray the past two seasons. If team USA was to secure a birth into the cup round, a win against Samoa seemed necessary. The match saw the return of Danny Barrett to a sevens pitch for the first time since helping the Eagles clinch an Olympic bid this past summer. It did not take long for Barrett to remind us all of his special talents. A strong run but Barrett and an excellent offload sent Perry Baker over to give team USA the 5–0 lead. Baker completed the brace with a try off a perfect interception. The conversion from Madison Hughes pushed the lead to 12–0. Samoa answered back after earning a penalty at the restart to draw within seven at the break.
The second half started well for the Americans, winning the restart, but the ball was soon lost and Samoa was able to score and pull within two. The Eagles appeared to squander a try-scoring opportunity but were given a second chance when Samoa conceded a five-meter scrum. The Eagles won the scrum and Kevin Swiryn worked the ball in front of the posts before being tackled. Zack Test took the ruck ball and dotted it down between the posts. Hughes added the conversion to set the score at 19–10. Samoa answered back with a seven-pointer to keep the match close. Down just two points, Samoa was awarded a penalty ten meters out of the USA 22. The Samoans chose to try the penalty kick and were rewarded with a 20–19 lead. The restart came with a single second remaining. The Eagles won the restart and worked the ball to speedster Carlin Isles on the wing, but he was bottled up and turned back inside. The ball worked to Thretton Palamo who was held up in an extended tackle turned maul. The official did not blow a whistle and Palamo worked his way to the ground. The ball worked from the ruck to Barrett for a cracking run into the Samoa 22. Test appeared to knock the ball on at the ruck but Samoa was dinged with a penalty. The ball worked wide leaving a two on one advantage for team USA. The Samoan defender was able to slap the ball backward, but Isles was there to scoop and score, giving the Americans the famous 24–20 victory and leaving Samoa to question some late calls against them.
The other match in the opening round of pool play was no less exciting. France was the unusual top seed after claiming third-place in Cape Town. England entered as the likely favorites in the match. At the half, England held a 12–7 lead. In the second half, that lead evaporated, leaving the English behind 14–12 with no time left on the clock. Nevertheless, like their Yankee cousins, the Britons were able to steal a try at the end to steal the match. For France, the second match proved a more pleasant result, topping Samoa 28–12.
For team USA, a win over England would position the Eagles to top the pool. For England, a win over the United States would clinch a quarterfinal birth. England struck first with a try from Alex Davis capping off a three on one that left Danny Barrett in an impossible position. The Americans won the restart but struggled to find any room in the England defense. Ultimately, England would add a converted try to take the 12–0 lead at the break.
The second half started better with the Americans winning the sloppy restart. Kevin Swiryn managed a deep run into England territory but was left without support. England took possession and soon crossed for a third try to put the match to 19–0. With less than five minute remaining, there was still time for a miraculous comeback, but the window was rapidly closing. The restart was sloppy and bounced off Madison Hughes into touch to give England a lineout inside the USA 22. The Americans survived the pressure when England threw a forward pass. Hughes finally got his side on the board with 2:40 left. His conversion attempt went astray and the United States was left with under two minutes to add two scores. As time ran out, it looked like the Eagles might add a consolation score from Isles or Nate Augspurger, but it was not to be. At full time, England claimed the 19–5 victory.
Fortunately for England, the win was all they needed to reach the quarterfinal, as they fell in their pool finale to Samoa (17–14). For France and the United States, the path was clear. The winner would advance, the loser would compete for the bowl. In the must-win contest, France struck first with an early converted try. Looking for a spark, Carlin Isles added another highlight-reel try to pull within two. The Eagles grabbed the lead when Hughes crossed in the corner to cap off a run by Barrett with his signature devastating stiff arm. Barrett would be key to setting up the next USA score as well. Barrett charged into the French defense like a bar brawler possessed gaining valuable territory. France ended up penalized in the ruck and then giving up a yellow card for batting the ball away. Isles proved the benefactor of the great field position adding a tryin the right corner. Niua, stepping in for Hughes after missing his first two conversion of the match, was also unable to convert from the corner, leaving the score 15–7 at the half.
It looked like the United States would start the second half where the first had ended after Will Holder batted the restart back, but the ball was knocked on by the support. France won the ensuing scrum and managed to burn the yellow card. France ultimately earned an offside penalty and kicked to touch to bring its squad back to seven. The next score went the way of team USA as Zack Test scored under the post. Hughes added his first conversion of the match to set the score at 22–14. France won the restart but lost the ball after a fluke injury to its captain. The Eagles were able to collect the loose ball and quickly sent Kevin Swiryn through for the try. Nate Augspurger added the conversion to put the match out of reach. With seconds left, France had only pride to play for, but pride was enough as France added a third converted try on fulltime to end the day: USA 29, France 21.
The result left England as the top seed in the pool and the United States as the second seed. The difference in seeds was monumental. For England, it meant facing Argentina to start Day 2. Team USA was left to face Fiji. Nevertheless, the result secured yet another quarterfinal appearance for the United States.
The second day started with the bowl quarterfinal. Scotland got things under way by defeating Portugal (29–12). The second match led to a fairly major upset when Japan relegated France to the shield semifinal: Japan 19, France 14. Canada hammered Russia (35–12) and Samoa topped Wales (29–24). In the cup quarterfinal, New Zealand dominated Kenya (35–0), England eased by Argentina (33–7), and South Africa topped Australia (26–14). This left Fiji and team USA to battle for the last semifinal bid.
Despite the recent success, there could be no doubt that team USA entered as the under dog. Despite that status, it was the Eagles who struck first when Carlin Isles broke free for a try in the left corner. Hughes, who had been off all weekend on his long kicks, remained unable to convert the try. As the half approached, team USA was well position to extend the lead. As the Americans were knocking on the door, Fiji managed to force a ball loose from the ruck and scoop it up for the 80 meter score the other way. What could have been a 12–0 lead at the half, ended up a 7–5 deficit for the United States.
In the first half, team USA looked the better side. In the second half, Fiji was clearly the better team. Early in the half, Fiji added another converted try to push the lead to 14–5. After back and forth action for several minutes, Fiji did what they do best and capitalized on a mistake to push the lead to 21–5 with just over a minute remaining. The Eagles added a consolation try from Will Holder and conversion by Nate Augspurger, but the result was set. Fiji would move to the semifinal, and the Eagles were going to a second consecutive plate semifinal.
Before last season, Australia had dominated team USA. Coming into this match, however, the Eagles had won three of the last four. The most notable was the final at the 2015 London Sevens. Streaks are fun things, but they do not decide who will win any given match. On this day, Australia struck first after two and half minutes. Team USA drew it level when Hughes scored a try in the corner off a pass from Test. Folau Niua, stepping in for Hughes at kicking, was unable to hit the touchline conversion, leaving the match tied at five all. Australia added seven before the half to start the second half up 12–5. In the second half, the Eagles had opportunities but could not convert them. In the end, it was Australia that proved the better team on the day: Australia 17, USA 5.
With a victory over the Eagles in hand, Australia progressed to the plate final for the second time this season. Joining the Aussies was Argentina after crushing Kenya (35–14). The loss meant not only that Kenya finished Day 2 at 0–2, but that they were outscored 71–14. In the plate final, Australia took the hardware with a strong 21–5 victory.
In the consolation competitions, Scotland got by upstart Japan (31–26) to reach the bowl final. In the other semifinal, Samoa beat Canada (26–7). Samoa finished an impressive tournament with the bowl title, beating Scotland 19–7. In the shield round, France struggled to keep Portugal winless: France 22, Portugal 17. This tournament was definitely Portugal’s best of the season, but the Portuguese still fall to 0–15 on the season. In the other semifinal, Russia added a second win on the season by shutting out Wales (17–0). The result was the worst finish for Wales since winning the Sevens World Cup in 2009. The shield final paired familiar European foes France and Russia. France took the hardware (14–7).
In the cup semifinal, New Zealand dominated England (25–5) to face South Africa in the final. It is not surprising that South Africa reached the final, but the shutout (31–0) of Fiji was jaw dropping. Fiji bounced back to defeat England in the third-place final (24–12). In the cup final, the result played out very much the same way as it had with the two teams met in pool play. South Africa led 14–7 at the half and took a 21–19 lead into the closing moments of the match. And, as before, the hometown heroes pulled it out in the end with a late try to win 24–21.
After the dust had settled, South Africa topped the series standings (54 points), followed closely by Fiji (52). New Zealand moved up to third (47), with team USA tumbling from third to sixth (39). Tied for fourth, England and Argentina each claim 41 points in the series standings. The standings are wide open and will certainly shift again after next weekend in Australia.