It was a good opening day for New Zealand in the men’s and women’s competitions as the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series returned to Sydney for the first time since 2020.
The Black Ferns Sevens won both of their opening games to take command of Pool A, while the All Blacks Sevens, who also arrived in Sydney at the top of the standings, made short work of Uruguay in their only fixture.
Payton Spencer announced his arrival on the Series with a two-try debut as New Zealand overpowered their South American opponents 45-7.
Spencer, the 18-year-old son of former All Black legend Carlos Spencer, looked very much at ease on the big stage and was heavily involved throughout.
While Spencer is at the start of his journey, Kenya’s Willy Ambaka ran out for what will be his 58th and final Series tournament.
Following Collins Injera’s decision to retire, Ambaka, 32, announced this week that he would also be retiring post-Sydney after 13 years at the top.
“Willy’s been a colossus,” reflected Kenya head coach Damian McGrath. “He’s going to leave a big hole and someone is going to have to step up and fill it.”
Kenya could not mark the occasion with a win, losing out to continental rivals South Africa, who sit behind the All Blacks Sevens at the top of Pool B on points difference.
Hamilton winners Argentina had to find all their resolve to avoid a shock against Canada and they lead Pool A along with Australia who had a tough game against Great Britain.
Samoa beat Ireland in the first men’s game of the day and are top of Pool C with the USA, comfortable winners over Spain.
Fiji and France took early control of Pool D with wins, one far more comfortable than the other, with Les Bleus Sevens given an almighty scare by Japan.
With three pools instead of four in the women’s event, all of the teams played two matches apiece on the opening day.
New Zealand and Australia, the two dominant forces in the Series to date, won both of their opening games as did Ireland and Great Britain.
The Black Ferns Sevens ran in 13 tries in wins against Papua New Guinea and France, while the hosts Australia also piled the points on against Brazil and Spain, despite the latter being played in torrential rain.
Having drawn a blank in the first game, Maddison Levi had lost her position as the leading try-scorer on the women’s Series to New Zealand’s Michaela Blyde. But by the end of Friday’s play, the 2022 Series Rookie of the Year was back in front with four tries in an outstanding display against Spain taking her overall tally to 30.
SYDNEY DAY ONE – MEN’S
POOL A: LOS PUMAS SEVENS PULL THROUGH
Australia had to come from behind to get their campaign off to a winning start.
After Dietrich Roache used all his evasive skills to score the opening try, the home crowd at the Allianz Stadium was silenced when Robbie Fergusson replied for Great Britain and Tom Emery converted.
Australia trailed 7-5 at the break but a try just after the restart from the electric Henry Paterson was enough to see them home.
Canada threatened to pull off a huge shock result in the second match in Pool A against Argentina, winners of last week’s Cup title in Hamilton.
Captain Phil Berna scored the first try, after a mix-up at the back of an Argentinian scrum, and while Agustin Fraga pulled one back for Los Pumas Sevens, it was Canada who led at half-time thanks to a second try from Anton Ngongo.
When Canada extended their lead to 19-5 through Brock Webster, a first ever win over Argentina on Australian soil looked to be on the cards.
However, Los Pumas Sevens dug deep and found the spirit that saw them triumph in Hamilton to come back and win 24-19, Rodrigo Isgro crossing twice in quick succession and Marcos Moneta adding the killer blow right at the death.
POOL B: SPENCER SHINES ON DEBUT
Shilton van Wyk scored twice and Shaun Williams added another as South Africa punished Kenya’s mistakes to race into a 21-0 half-time lead.
James Murphy, who missed last weekend’s tournament in Hamilton, scored another after the restart and Ricardo Duarttee kicked his fourth conversion.
The Shujaa refused to lie down though and got into the stride as the match wore on and were rewarded with a consolation try for Kevin Wekesa.
New Zealand ran in seven tries with debutant Payton Spencer claiming two against Uruguay.
Che Clarke opened the All Blacks Sevens' account after good work from Ngarohi McGarvey-Black before Spencer used his pace on the outside to score his first World Series try.
The mask-wearing Mateo Vinals stole in for a fine solo try as Uruguay hit back but after that it was one-way traffic.
Further tries from Sam Dickson, Leroy Carter, Brady Rush, Spencer and the ever-dangerous Akuila Rokolisoa rounded off a comfortable victory.
POOL C: WINS FOR SAMOA AND USA
Typical of recent matches on the Series, Ireland led Samoa at half-time but they were unable to hang on for an opening day win.
Two tries from the prolific Jordan Conroy to one in reply from Paul Scanlan had given James Topping’s side a 12-5 advantage at the break. But tries from Neueli Leitufia and Motu Opetai turned the game around for Samoa.
USA opened up with a 33-14 win against Spain, outscoring Los Leones Sevens five tries to two.
Compared to their 15-14 win over Spain in the opening tournament of the 2023 Series in Hong Kong, this was a much more comfortable ride.
Malacchi Esdale scored twice in the first half and David Still, Joe Schroeder and Ben Broselle followed him over the whitewash.
Schroeder’s was the pick of the bunch, the big Indianapolis forward rising high to pluck the ball out of the air with both hands above his head following a clever cross-field kick from Stephen Tomasin.
POOL D: FRANCE IN DRAMATIC COMEBACK
Fiji played Tonga in a global international sevens match for the first time since Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 and after being on the receiving end of a 52-7 defeat, Tonga will probably hope it is at least another nine years before they play their Pacific rivals again.
Fiji could even afford to go down to six men and still win with ease. They led 28-0 thanks to four converted tries from Iowane Teba, Pilipo Bukayaro, Manueli Maisamoa and Waisea Nacuqu when Jeremaia Matana saw red for making contact with the head.
Shortly after, the in-form Maisamoa scored a second before Laulea Mau pulled one back for Tonga.
However, the momentum of the match was with rampant Fiji and there was still time for Bukayaro to cross for another and for Viwa Naduvalo to bag a late brace.
With Tokyo having hosted the last Olympics and Paris set to stage the next Games, in 2024, this match was one to put a ring around, and it did not disappoint.
Japan took the game to France from the off and the pressure was too much for Les Bleus Sevens as they lost Jordan Sepho to an early yellow card.
Searching for their first win over France in Australia since 2010, Japan did not waste the chance to gain control of the scoreboard. Taiga Ishida crossed twice in the first half with a try from Ren Miyagami in between as Japan opened up a 17-0 half-time lead.
However, France were a side transformed in the second half, scoring three tries in four minutes – two by Rayan Rebbadj with William Iraguha getting the other – to produce the biggest comeback win of the Series so far.
SYDNEY DAY ONE – WOMEN’S
POOL A: BLACK FERNS SEVENS SEEK IMPROVEMENT
There was a record 55-0 win for Japan over Papua New Guinea but New Zealand dominate the pool with two wins from two.
The Blacks Ferns Sevens crossed eight times in a 48-0 win over invitational side Papua New Guinea but were made to work by France in their second game before pulling through to win 29-14.
France’s Ian Jason scored at either end of the match but once Stacey Fluhler cancelled out her first effort with a chip-and-chase try there was only ever going to be one winner. Fluhler also scored twice, the second from an 85-metre dash, while Jazmin Felix-Hotham, Jorja Miller and Portia Woodman-Wickliffe also got their names on the scoreboard.
Woodman-Wickliffe was adamant that despite the wins, New Zealand can do better.
“Playing back-to-back and all that comes into the matter, but it’s not good enough and we want to pick it up tomorrow,” she said.
POOL B: GREAT BRITAIN STUN FIJI
The first match of the day was a thriller as Great Britain came back from a 5-0 half-time deficit to beat Fiji 17-5.
Ana Maria Naimasi had given Fiji the lead but Great Britain hit back with a second-half surge producing tries for Amy Wilson Hardy, Jasmine Joyce and Emma Uren.
Great Britain’s next game against Canada was won at a canter, with tries from Jade Shekells, Heather Cowell and Grace Crompton easing them into a 19-0 lead.
Canada did, however, score a brilliantly executed try when Madison Grant leapt into the air to catch a restart and then fed veteran Olivia Apps who was left with a clear run to the line.
USA edged out North American rivals Canada 14-12 but they were on the end of a shock in their second game, losing 17-14 to a Fiji side that kept the ball alive at every opportunity.
Adi vani Buleki capped a brilliant display with two tries as Fiji held on to celebrate a famous win.
POOL C: AUSTRALIA AND IRELAND SET FOR DECIDER
Having won the 2018 Cup title in Sydney without conceding a single point, this time around Australia had their line breached five minutes into their opening game against Brazil.
It was only a minor inconvenience though as Tim Wash’s side went on to win 28-10 thanks to a brace from Bienne Terita and a try apiece for Madison Ashby and Teagan Levi.
Levi was the creator for sister Maddison as Australia closed out day one with a 46-0 win against Spain. Australia handled the wet conditions very well and scored eight tries, with Maddison Levi responsible for half of them.
With Ireland winning both their games, Saturday’s meeting between the teams will be a straight shootout for top spot.
Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe was missing from Ireland’s line-up for their first game against Spain, a nervy 14-12 win, but they could call on another flyer in Beibhinn Parsons to see them home. And Parsons was on the scoresheet again as Ireland ran in four tries in a 26-12 win against Brazil.