New Zealand Wins in Sydney
The second leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series brought the Series to the South Pacific. In the New Zealand Sevens last week, team USA managed to get through a difficult pool but came up short in both matches on Day 2. For perennial powerhouse New Zealand All Blacks Sevens, the Wellington stop was a perfect showcase of what a healthy side could do as they ascended to the cup championship and reigned supreme over rival South Africa in a controversial final.
The next stop was Sydney, Australia. Entering Sydney, questions loomed of whether New Zealand was really back or just an anomaly spurred by the home crowd. Similarly, many wondered how Australia would do on home soil despite the omission of fifteens superstar Quade Cooper. For the USA Eagles, competing in their 100th World Series tournament, the simple question was whether the poor offensive showing in New Zealand could be overcome to get back to pushing for a semifinal birth.
The pool with the most interest for the home crowd was Pool A. It was there that New Zealand and Australia seemed destined to meet to close the day in the pool decider. The home fans were not disappointed. New Zealand started the competition with solid victories over Canada (27–12) and Portugal (40–5). Australia delivered the same fates to Portugal (24–7) and Canada (26–12). Heading into the decider, New Zealand held a 19-point lead in points differential. This meant that Australia would need to win the match to top the pool. With a 17–5 lead at the break, it seemed like Australia was poised to top the pool. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the cardiac All Blacks worked their late match magic once again to score the match leveler on fulltime to pull a draw (17–17).
The draw meant New Zealand would top Pool A and play the second seed from Pool D. Australia, the runner-up, would face the Pool D victor. Of interesting note in the third-place decider for Pool D, Portugal finally posted a victory. After starting the season 0–17, the young Portuguese put together a 21-point second half to defeat team Canada (26–17).
With Portugal finally claiming a win in pool play, this left only Russia without a win in the pool rounds on the year. Russia found itself slotted into Pool B to face South Africa, Kenya, and for the fourth time in as many tournaments, Scotland. The elusive win was not to come against Kenya (24–10) or South Africa (40–0). Instead, Russia would need to beat the Scots to snap the 0–11 streak in pool play for the year. For Scotland, the tournament could not have started much worse than it did: losing 33–17 to South Africa. Scotland held hopes of breaking through to the cup round for the first time this year, but would need a win over Kenya. With a 14–12 lead into the 12th minute of play, it seemed a win was within reach. Instead, an extremely resilient Kenyan side prevailed: Kenya 17, Scotland 14.
The Kenya loss meant that Scotland would be left to contest for the bowl, yet again. With nothing but pride left, Scotland took out some frustration on Russia, posting a resounding 40–5 win. The pool decider, the first match between Kenya and South Africa since the Kenyans pulled a major upset in Cape Town, was a match in which South Africa controlled from midway through the first half until the final whistle: RSA 26, Kenya 19.
In Pool C, Fiji looked set to continue pool-play domination with an opening shutout of Samoa (31–0) and a blowout of France (49–5). This set up an Argentinian team that has been surging in the rankings. With both sides level at the half, the Fijians reminded why they were Series champions last season with a solid 19–14 victory over a strong team Argentina.
For Argentina, Day 1 saw the team through to another quarterfinal, but failed to silence critics who have speculated the recent success to have been driven by schedule. Against France, Argentina had to overcome a 7–5 deficit at the half to win 17–7. Against Samoa, the halftime deficit whole was 7–0 before a try at the death sent Argentina to 2–0: Argentina 14, Samoa 12.
Fans back home in the United States anxiously awaited Pool D. After a tough draw in Wellington, team USA had scored a favorable pool pairing. The Eagles got things under way against Wales. Wales, the former World Cup champion, has fallen to the basement of the series and only has a handful of contracted players.
Team USA got the match started on the right foot with a try from Folau Niua just forty seconds in. Madison Hughes, who struggled with the boot from tough angles in Wellington, added the conversion. The rest of the first half remained close with Wales squandering opportunities through poor execution. Finally, with fifty seconds remaining in the half, Carlin Isles broke through for a signature eight-meter score between the sticks. Hughes added his second conversion and the eagles led 14–0 at the half.
In the second half, the eagles took a relatively strong first half and blew the doors off Wales. Thirty seconds in, Perry Baker capped off a great offload from Danny Barrett. Hughes added the conversion and the lead pushed to 21–0. Thretton Palamo was the next Eagle to score. Hughes’s fourth conversion pushed the lead well out of reach. The scoring was not done, however. Ben Pinkelman, in only his second tournament cut through the Welsh line and dotted down for his first career score on the Series. Hughes slotted the conversion and the lead pushed to 35–0. Perry Baker would complete his brace and give Hughes his sixth conversion to put the match at 42–0. With no time remaining, Wales looked set to break the shutout, but Nate Augspurger made a crucial tackle at the five-meter line to preserve the famous victory: USA 42, Wales 0.
With the Dragons slayed, the Eagles turned to the Brave Blossoms of Japan. As with Wales, the match started with an early American lead. Perry Baker scored his first try after an amazing run where he was dropped to a knee at the Japan 22 but was not held to give the 5–0 lead. A poor Japanese pass shortly after the restart sent Martin Iosefo over for a second score. Hughes added the conversion. Japan struck back to pull the match to 12–5. Baker made sure that the lead was not in doubt heading to the half when he added a try starting from the USA 10-meter to dot down under the post. Hughes added the conversion and the Eagles were in front 19–5 at halftime.
The second half started much the same way. Japan won the kickoff, but team USA stole the ball at the ruck–on what should have been a penalty against Danny Barrett–and Baker dashed over the line for the hat trick. Hughes added the conversion to put the Eagles in front 26–5. Carlin Isles kept the score board ticking with an easy (for him) try under the post. Nate Augspurger added the conversion to give the Eagles a 33–5 lead. Japan added two late consolation tries, but the victory was never in doubt: USA 33, Japan 17.
This left only England standing in the way of a perfect Day 1 for the Eagles. England, like the United States, had a strong start to the tournament: beating Japan (26–5) and Wales (21–5). As between the two sides, however, team USA was clearly the team executing better coming in. Despite the Eagles hopes of a perfect run, it was England’s Alex Gray that struck first with a masterful cut through the American lines to take the 5–0 lead. It looked like the United States had answered, but Perry Baker made an uncharacteristic error when he stepped on the end line before doubting the ball down in goal. The score that would have put the Eagles in front ended up a 22-meter drop out for England. Soon, instead of an American lead, it was England that struck and pushed its lead to 12–0. Fortunately, Zack Test was able to get the Eagles on the board after a great pass from Danny Barrett for a try under the post. Hughes added the conversion. But England held the 12–7 advantage midway through the match.
In the second half, it only took forty seconds for England to extend its lead (17–7). Danny Barrett answered back. With Hughes’s conversion, the Eagles stood just three points shy with a minute remaining. England won the restart and managed to earn a penalty at midfield. Replay showed that the official missed a clear knock on against England before calling a penalty against team USA. Had the correct call been made, the Eagles would have had a scrum with time to score. Instead, England took a page from the sloth’s handbook to slow play. By the time England kicked to touch and finally threw the lineout, there was virtually no time remaining. England took the lineout cleanly and kicked to touch. The partisan crowd was quite displeased at the end of the match.
Though the result was disappointing, the strong start to Day 1 sent the Eagles through to the quarterfinal. In the Pool D consolation match, Wales overcame a 21–7 deficit to steal a victory at the death: Wales 26, Japan 21.
Team USA was glad to be in the quarterfinal yet again. What had once been an accomplishment in itself has become the bare minimum expectation of head coach Mike Friday’s team. The matchup, however, did not favor an advance to the semifinal. Despite boasting a 3–0 record over New Zealand on the season, those victories came over All Blacks Sevens sides that had been depleted by injury. With the Kiwis back to their winning ways, the Eagles’ fans feared a return to a reality that predated the three-match winning streak.
The match started well. The Eagles won an early penalty and worked the ball to the New Zealand five-meter, winning a yellow card against All Blacks Sevens skipper Tim Mikkelson. The Americans were one pass away from a try, but instead ended up on the back foot. New Zealand was able to burn the penalty before a big run gave the Kiwis an opportunity to get on the board. Zack Test was able chase down a New Zealand kick and dot it down in goal for what appeared was going to be a USA 22 –meter drop out. Instead, Hughes was shown yellow giving New Zealand the penalty at the USA 22. The All Blacks Sevens worked the ball wide, but Perry Baker was able to drag his opposite number into touch. New Zealand ultimately broke the stalemate with a try from Ben Lam after cutting through the depleted American line. The score let Hughes return, but not before falling behind 7–0. The Eagles won the restart but turned the ball over quickly and the Kiwis added a second score for a 12–0 lead at the break.
In the second half, New Zealand struck first to go up 19–0. Based upon the dominating New Zealand defense, the lead looked insurmountable. A second second-half try put the match well out of reach. On full time, the Eagles looked to score with a kick, but it skirted through the back before Test could get to it. Fortunately, for American pride, there was a penalty that allowed the Eagles one last shot at some points. Folau Niua made the most of the chance and added a consolation try next to the post. Hughes added the conversion, but the result was sealed long before: New Zealand 24, USA 7.
In the other quarterfinal matches, Australia went to sudden death to beat England (17–12), South Africa throttled Argentina (26–0), and Fiji made short work of Kenya (28–12). With a trip to the semifinal out of reach, the Eagles were left facing another winless Day 2 unless they could overcome Kenya. Last season, coach Friday bested his old team on three of four occasions. This season, Kenya had already topped team USA once and was carrying a two match winning streak over the Americans.
The Eagles entered as the favored side and lived up to that billing early. In the first half, team USA dominated in every phase of the game. Carlin Isles was first to strike when he carved up the Kenyan defense for a long try. Hughes added the conversion for the 7–0 lead. The Eagles won the restart–something they had largely failed to do on Day 1. It didn’t take long before Isles was sent over for his second try of the half. Hughes added his second conversion and the lead stood at 14–0. Ben Pinkelman would be the next to score when he dotted down with a minute remaining in the half. Hughes notched his third conversion to put the United States 21 points ahead.
In the second half, the script completely flipped. Kenya won a penalty on the restart and hardly looked back. Within the first minute, Kenya had struck to cut the lead to 21–5. The Kenyans won the restart and scored again to pull within 21–12. The Eagles were penalized at the restart and Kenya added a third try to pull to 21–17 before the Americans had found any second-half possession. The Eagles finally won the next kick, but lost possession when Matai Leuta was dragged into touch at the Kenyan 10-meter. The Eagles would win the ball back, but Kenya would be the next to score, doing so with 46 seconds remaining. The restart came with no time remaining and was instantly knocked on by the United States to end the match: Kenya 24, USA 21.
The loss meant the second straight winless Day 2 for team USA. Where the team would have once been pleased with making the cup round, a strong 2–0 start turned into an 0–3 conclusion, with a humiliating loss to end the tournament. Coach Friday and his team will not be happy with the last two tournaments. Fortunately, the next stop is on home soil in Las Vegas. The loss also struck a major blow to team USA’s standings in the series rankings. The Eagles have fallen to seventh in the standing. It is a tight pack, as fourth-place Australia sits just five points ahead of the United States. Still, it is a disappointing follow up to a strong start of the season in Dubai.
Joining the United States in the Day 2 winless column was Pool D opponent England. The English were level with Argentina at the break, but failed to score in the second half: Argentina 19, England 14. In the plate final, Argentina overmatched Kenya for a 24-point shutout.
In the consolation competitions, Portugal proved that the Day 1 victory was not a fluke by beating Japan (31–17). The victory is a huge boost to Portugal’s hopes of remaining on the Series next season. At the end of the tournament, Portugal would be level with non-core invitee Japan and one-point ahead of Russia for relegation. Russia’s slip in the standings was occasioned by a loss (28–24) to Samoa. Canada got back to winning by topping Wales (32–21). The loss dropped Wales to the shield competition for consecutive tournaments. The final spot in the bowl semifinal went to Scotland after holding off France (22–19). After winning the bowl in Dubai and finishing third in Cape Town, France has now finished in the shield competition for consecutive tournaments.
Japan booked a birth in the shield final after overcoming Russia (24–17). Joining team Japan was Wales after hammering wayward France (22–5). In the final, the more experienced British side prevailed with a try on full time: Wales 26, Russia 19.
The bowl semifinal was the end of Portugal’s two-match winning streak. Despite time to overcome the 14–5 deficit at the half, Samoa held on to win 14–10. Canada, however, built upon its first win to end Scotland’s tournament: Canada 35, Scotland 12. In the bowl final, team Canada took a twelve-point lead to the half and never looked back: Canada 17, Samoa 12. With team Canada slotting into the same pool as team USA in Las Vegas, fans of the Eagles are hoping that Canada cools off by then.
The top tier of the competition saw two hotly contested semifinals. New Zealand held on to topple Fiji (14–12) and Australia did the same against South Africa (12–7). The third-place matchup meant a Fiji would mean at least a two-way tie with South Africa atop the standings. Fiji rose to the occasion: Fiji 26, RSA 12.
The cup final was yet another instant classic for the cardiac All Blacks. Australia scored first to take a 7–0 lead. But New Zealand answered back to level the match. Australia struck again to go ahead 12–7 just before the half, but New Zealand was able to level it at the break. Early in the second half, Australia again stretched the lead to five before New Zealand tied things back at 17 all. Continuing the pattern, Australia again scored and pushed the lead to seven. New Zealand answered the try but not the conversion to sit behind 24–22 with the clock showing zero. Although zeros on the clock may end a soccer match, this is rugby. In the end, the cardiac All Blacks had the answer they needed to crush the home crowd’s hearts: New Zealand 27, Australia 24.
The win means New Zealand is now the only side with multiple cup victories on the season. Perhaps more importantly, the win means a three-way tie among South Africa, Fiji, and New Zealand atop the series. It is hard to remember a better competition atop the series heading into the midway point of the year.
The series will take a break until March 4th when the world’s premier sevens competition heads to the bright lights of Las Vegas, Nevada for the USA Sevens.