Australia's women began their HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title defence on a winning note as they claimed an unprecedented hat-trick of titles in Dubai with a 26-19 victory against their closest rivals New Zealand.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s men made it four Dubai titles in a row with a 21-5 win against Ireland underlining their dominance in the desert. Having missed out on the medals in the first tournament of the World Series in Hong Kong last month, it was a timely response from the Blitzboks with qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games determined by the standings at the season's end.
In the bronze medal matches, it was one win and one defeat for the USA, who lost to New Zealand in the men’s competition but saw off France in the women’s.
Fiji’s men, runners-up in Hong Kong a month ago, could only finish ninth and are currently outside of the top four places guaranteed to secure teams' automatic entry to the Paris extravaganza, although with nine rounds left to play there is still plenty of time for them to make up lost ground.
QUEENS OF THE DESERT
For Australia’s women, the Dubai tournament saw a continuation of the form that took them to not only the World Series crown but also the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens gold medals.
“Our coaches say we are queens of the desert, we thrive off heat, so for us, it was just a golden win,” said player of the final, Madison Ashby.
It was the 19th World Series Cup final between Australia and New Zealand with the Black Ferns Sevens looking to tip the balance back in their favour after being on the wrong side of recent results.
Michaela Blyde had a steely-eyed look about her during the national anthems and she was right up for the occasion, but her hat-trick was in vain as all-conquering Australia celebrated yet another trophy.
Putting on a performance of pace and power, Australia always had the edge over their fiercest rivals and tries from Sharni Williams, who also kicked three conversions, Faith Nathan, Maddison Levi and Demi Hayes saw them home.
Levi’s try in the final took her to the top of the all-time Dubai try-scorers chart, on 11.
Co-captain Hayes said: “It was always going to be a tough final, and credit to them, they are such a good opposition so for us to come out on top today, it was a good win.”
FIRST-HALF POWER PLAY FROM BLITZBOKS
In the men’s final, Ireland were no match for defending champions South Africa in what was only their second Cup final.
South Africa were beaten by Great Britain in their opening match on day one and had to come from behind in the quarter-final and semi-final, having left it late to qualify for the Cup knockout stages in the first place, before taking centre stage in front of a full house at The Sevens Stadium.
However, the final against Ireland was a much more comfortable affair, the Blitzboks easing to a 21-5 win after scoring three converted tries before the break.
Player of the Final, Shilton van Wyk side-stepped his way through the Ireland defensive line and sped away to score within 20 seconds of the first whistle and then added another before a Siviwe Soyizwapi intercept left Ireland with it all to do.
An Ireland comeback never really materialised due to South Africa’s vaster experience at this level and astute game management and Jack Kelly’s try on 11 minutes was scant consolation.
“I am very proud of the boys, I think the camp coming into this one was different and we really stuck together as a group and today and the weekend has shown how much we have fought for each other,” said Blitzboks captain Soyizwapi.
ROKO BRACE DELIVERS BRONZE FOR ALL BLACKS SEVENS
Akuila Rokolisoa took his try tally for the tournament to six as New Zealand bagged the bronze medal and 17 precious World Series points with victory over the USA.
Marcus Tupuola scored first for the USA but other than a brilliant, blind offload from Malacchi Esdale, which led to an eighth-minute try for Ben Broselle, it was all New Zealand.
Caleb Tangitau was first on the board for the All Blacks Sevens before star man Rokolisoa got his brace. Brady Rush and Amanaki Nicole underlined New Zealand’s superiority with two further tries.
WOMEN’S EAGLES TOPPLE FRANCE TO TAKE THIRD
France won bronze at both Dubai events last season but they were denied this time around as the USA secured a 21-12 victory.
Tries from two of their star performers, Lou Noel and Valentine Lothoz, helped Les Bleues recover from the setback of conceding a try to Naya Tapper in the first minute, but a high error count thereafter stymied their progress.
Bidding for their first medal since Malaga 10 months ago, the USA refused to concede defeat and Cheta Emba’s try and Kayla Canett's second conversion put them back in front at 14-12.
USA safely saw out Ilona Maher’s sin-bin period and then, from 70 metres out, Kris Thomas extended her side’s lead. With Canett adding the extra two points, the Women’s Sevens Eagles were two scores up, at 21-12, but it took a brilliant cover tackle from Maher on Yolaine Yengo to keep it that way.
Camille Grassineau's try with seconds left on the clock made for a grandstand finish but the USA managed to claim possession at the restart and booted the ball off the field.
MEN’S SEMI-FINAL ROUND-UP
Initially, precious little was seen of the two speedsters, Jordan Conroy and two-time World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year Perry Baker in a physical encounter between Ireland and the USA. Neither team was able to get their danger men into the game in the first half which produced just the one try. Zac Ward handed Ireland the lead when he stepped through Kevon Williams’ attempted tackle, Mark Roche adding the conversion to make it 7-0 at the break.
A few minutes into the second half, though, the USA were able to get the ball in Baker’s hands in time and space and the ageless 36-year-old cruised home. In scoring his 235th World Series try, Baker drew level with New Zealand’s Tim Mikkelson in third on the all-time, try-scoring charts. Steve Tomasin nailed his conversion and the scores remained 7-7 at the hooter.
Five minutes of tense play passed in the golden point, extra-time period with both sides coughing up possession. But the game-changing moment came when Baker threw a forward pass on his own 22 and Ireland struck from the resulting scrum, Roche putting his side through to their first-ever Dubai Cup final, 12-7.
The semi-final between New Zealand and South Africa lived up to expectations as the Blitzboks came back from 12-0 down at half-time to win 26-19.
New Zealand attacked the guts of the South African defence from the off and a couple of midfield breaks, firstly from Tone Ng Shiu and then Leroy Carter, led to tries for Caleb Tangitau. Tangitau was then denied a first-half hat-trick in stoppage time when Siviwe Soyizwapi managed to get underneath the explosive teenager and prevent him grounding the ball over the line.
Within 20 seconds of the restart, the Blitzboks hit back through Muller du Plessis before World Series debutant Ricardo Duarttee continued his superb introduction to the circuit with their second. New Zealand responded brilliantly, scoring from inside their 22.
Che Clarke's quarterback-style pass and Regan Ware's brilliant offload led to Akuila Rokolisoa racing clear and the All Blacks Sevens had the lead again. Branco du Preez’s try levelled the scores at 19-19 but Duarttee was unsuccessful with the conversion and it looked as though the game was heading until extra-time until Shilton van Wyk dived over deep into stoppage time after New Zealand were made to pay for Amanaki Nicole’s yellow card.
WOMEN’S SEMI-FINAL ROUND-UP
As the sun started to set over The Sevens Stadium, it was USA who were left chasing shadows in the first women’s semi-final against New Zealand.
The Black Ferns Sevens dominated possession in a one-sided encounter that began with another try for Michaela Blyde, who exploited an over-chase in defence to finish off a flowing move that stretched the USA on the edges. The USA then invited more pressure on themselves with an error on their own goal-line and New Zealand quickly capitalised to score again through Kelly Brazier.
In addition to conceding, the USA suffered another blow when Sammy Sullivan was yellow-carded for foul play after Brazier had grounded the ball. With seven players on the field, the USA had found it hard to keep their opponents at bay let alone with six, and New Zealand crossed the line for a third time before the half was out, Shiray Kaka benefitting from Jazmin Felix-Hotham’s well-timed pass.
Kaka added her second shortly after the restart, to take the score up to 24-0, before returning the compliment and coming up with an assist for Felix-Hotham.
The Women’s Sevens Eagles spent almost the entirety of the second half in their own territory and New Zealand took the opportunity to rest some of their frontline players in the closing stages with their place in the Cup final secured. There was still time for captain Tyla Nathan-Wong to celebrate her 200th appearance for the Black Ferns Sevens with her team’s sixth try in a comprehensive 36-0 win.
Australia went into their semi-final with France on a 14-game winning run in Dubai and they got off to a flying start thanks to their try-scoring phenomenon, Maddison Levi. From a quickly-taken lineout, Australia spread the ball wide and once it got into the hands of Levi, there was only ever going to be one outcome.
Camille Grassineau reminded Australia they were in a game when she beat Alysia Lefau-Fakaosilea on the outside with an elusive, arcing run. But almost straight from the restart, Lefau-Fakaosilea dusted herself down to score Australia’s second try and Faith Nathan added another to hand last season’s treble winners a 19-5 half-time lead.
A superb breakout try, finished off by World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year Charlotte Caslick, knocked the stuffing out of France and in the remaining four minutes, Tim Walsh’s side not only prevented a blunt France attack from scoring but also added two further tries to their tally with Nathan getting her second and Lily Dick crossing at the death.
MEN’S QUARTER-FINAL ROUND-UP
Following on from a dramatic first day, three of the men’s quarters were settled by a single score with narrow wins for Ireland, USA and South Africa. New Zealand had a bit easier against France, winning 20-0.
Twice Ireland took the lead and twice Los Pumas Sevens fought back but, in the end, it was Jordan Conroy who saw Ireland home, 19-14. Receiving the ball just inside Ireland’s 22, Conroy used his blistering pace to stretch Argentina on the edge before stepping Alejo Lavayen for an 80-metre score.
Another speedster proved to be the matchwinner in the next quarter-final, with Perry Baker turning the Australian defence inside and out on his way to scoring the all-important try in a 24-19 victory against the reigning World Series champions.
South Africa’s highly anticipated encounter with Samoa in the last of the quarters produced the same scoreline with the Blitzboks prevailing. Ricardo Duarttee's second try and one for James Murphy kept South Africa's Dubai title defence on track after Samoa had taken an early second-half lead.
Before that, New Zealand outscored Les Bleus Sevens three tries to nil, the best coming from the dancing feet of Akuila Rokolisoa who also kicked the conversion. As the match entered the final 45 seconds, Kurt Baker elected to kick for goal and slotted the first penalty of his long and illustrious World Series career.
WOMEN’S QUARTER-FINAL ROUND-UP
Saturday’s play began with the Cup quarter-finals and New Zealand wasted no time in booking their place in the semis with a comfortable 22-5 win over Great Britain. Abbie Brown’s early try for Great Britain only served to stir the Black Ferns Sevens into action and they went on to score four tries, two of them by Michaela Blyde.
The second quarter-final between Ireland and the USA was on a knife edge throughout with both defences cancelling each other out. An overthrown lineout by Ireland, however, gave the USA a great attacking platform 40 metres out and Naya Tapper scored what proved to be the matchwinner, following a delightful offload by player of the match Llona Maher, in the 10th minute.
Converted tries from Alycia Chrystiaens and Lou Noel were enough for France to see off Spain 14-5, but the game was right in the balance until Les Bleues Sevens' second score at the death.
Meanwhile, Australia pulled away from Fiji in the second half to win 38-21, Maddison Levi and Faith Nathan scoring a brace of tries apiece.
Now that the dust has settled on Dubai, we can look forward to the next two tournaments as the World Series returns to Cape Town, on 9-11 December.
The men’s pool draw for Cape Town sees hosts South Africa in Pool A together with France, Fiji and Canada. Pool B includes Ireland, Samoa, Uruguay and Japan. New Zealand are in Pool C alongside Argentina, Kenya and Spain while the USA, Australia, Great Britain and Uganda are in Pool D.
The women’s pools in Cape Town have all-conquering Australia drawn with Ireland, Spain and South Africa in Pool A. New Zealand are in Pool B together with Fiji, Great Britain and Brazil. Pool C includes the USA, France, Canada and Japan.