It proved to be a memorable and momentous weekend in Toulouse as New Zealand wrapped up a tournament and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title double.
The Black Ferns Sevens completed their incredible season with a sixth successive gold medal, while the All Blacks Sevens were crowned men’s 2023 Series champions with a round to spare.
Beneath those teams, the race for Paris 2024 Olympic Games qualification is almost complete, with three men’s teams competing for the last remaining ticket.
Three exciting days of rugby sevens concluded on Sunday under the watchful gaze of members of the Top 14-leading Toulouse squad. Here is what we, and they, learned from a tremendous tournament in Toulouse.
This one has got us emotional 🥺— World Rugby 7s (@WorldRugby7s) May 14, 2023
A poignant farewell to a great of Sevens. Thank you, @nizzlewilliams 🖤#HSBC7s | #France7s pic.twitter.com/alywKZRzUA
Guthrie given deserved send-off
If you wanted to know what Niall Guthrie (née Williams) means to her team-mates, then there was an emphatic answer as the women’s Series drew to a close in Toulouse.
Not only was the departing Black Ferns Sevens star given the privilege of lifting both the tournament and Series trophies, the whole New Zealand squad and support staff then honoured her with a rousing Haka on the Stade Ernest-Wallon pitch.
Later on Sunday, New Zealand players attended the women’s 2023 Series awards night dressed in T-shirts bearing their team-mate’s name and image.
They are clearly going to miss Guthrie, and so is the Series. Since making her debut in Dubai in 2015 she has gone on to play 164 Series matches (only five New Zealand women have appeared in more), scoring 43 tries and collecting countless medals.
Guthrie missed out on Olympic gold due to injury but won four Series titles, and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 and Commonwealth Games gold in the same year.
The 35-year-old is set for a new challenge in NRLW – where she will come up against former Black Ferns Sevens colleague Gayle Broughton – but it seems New Zealand are in a good place. Sunday’s Cup final took their unbeaten run to 36 matches, and they need only two wins to beat their own women’s Series record.
All Blacks Sevens grateful for Solo brilliance
Speaking after his stunning extra-time try had earned the All Blacks Sevens a second successive Cup final victory against Argentina, Roderick Solo admitted he “just had to go for the corner and hope for the best”.
Such modesty underplays the sheer brilliance of his acrobatic finish, launching himself into the air and somehow touching the ball down before he fell into touch, but Solo is someone who backs himself.
To earn his chance on the Series, he took the initiative and phoned New Zealand coach Clark Laidlaw to ask what he needed to do to get a call-up.
Having impressed in training he was called into the squad for the tournament in Toulouse last year and it was fitting, therefore, that Solo would have such a big impact this time around at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.
Solo’s two late tries on Sunday took his season tally to 26 in 36 appearances, despite being used primarily as a replacement. Having been part of the squad that lost the London final last year, he will hope to go one better at Twickenham this weekend and round off an impressive first full campaign on the circuit.
Maddison Levi smashes try-scoring record
Portia Woodman-Wickliffe’s women’s single Series try record (52) had stood for eight years and heading into Toulouse there was no guarantee that Maddison Levi would surpass it.
Levi had scored three tries in the previous tournament in Hong Kong and needed to cross the whitewash five times in Toulouse just to equal Woodman-Wickliffe’s haul for the Black Ferns Sevens from 2015.
The notion that she might come up short soon looked foolish on Friday, though, as she opened her account with a hat-trick in Australia’s 52-0 defeat of Brazil.
Levi then bagged a brace against Ireland to draw level with Woodman-Wickliffe and set a new mark as she touched down in the Pool B defeat to France.
But she wasn’t satisfied merely to have the record, and four tries on the final day – including a hat-trick in the bronze final victory against the hosts – stretched her tally even further, to 57. It is a feat that will take some beating.
Guess who? 👀— World Rugby 7s (@WorldRugby7s) May 14, 2023
Loving the costume from Romain Ntamack! 🇫🇷#France7s | #HSBC7s pic.twitter.com/VVmZcVQgK9
Canada finally find some form
Had someone tuned in for the men’s Cup semi-finals without paying attention to the previous two days of action in Toulouse they would have been in for a shock.
Playing Argentina for a place in the Cup final against either hosts France or New Zealand was the rather incongruous sight of Canada, who had failed to make even the quarter-finals of a tournament since January 2022.
Canada began the HSBC France Sevens with their Series future in some doubt but finished it with a much-needed confidence boost heading into the World Rugby Sevens Series 2024 Play-off in London.
Next weekend, they will face Uruguay, Kenya and World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series winners Tonga at Twickenham, and only the victorious side from that four-team tournament will play on the circuit next year.
It could prove timely then that Canada’s run to the semi-finals included pool-stage wins against both Uruguay (26-0) and Kenya (33-7). Have the North Americans found some form just at the right time?
Japan women end promising core return on a high
Like Canada’s men, Japan’s women saved their best for last as they finished an encouraging first season back as a core team in eighth – their highest ever final position in the Series standings.
That feat was achieved thanks to a weekend in which they reached the Cup quarter-finals for only the third time in 2023 and went on to record their best tournament result, beating Ireland to finish fifth.
On Sunday, Mel Ohtani and Wakaba Hara scored in the fifth-place semi-final to avenge the Sakura Sevens’ pool-stage defeat to Great Britain and the team followed that up with an excellent performance against Ireland, running out 14-0 winners.
It means the players have plenty to be happy about as they return to domestic action in the Taiyo Seimei Women’s Sevens Series 2023.
Men’s Olympic qualification almost settled
Argentina and Fiji both did enough in Toulouse to join New Zealand and hosts France in booking their tickets to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
It looks as though Australia will be the final team to join them via the Series, as they head to London for the men’s 2023 Series finale with a nine-point cushion on the only two teams that can now catch them – Samoa and South Africa.
Australia recovered from a shock Cup quarter-final defeat to Canada to beat South Africa and Ireland on day three to confirm fifth place and take a firm grip of that final Olympic ticket.
With a maximum of 20 points to play for at the 12-team HSBC London Sevens, it means Australia will guarantee their place in Paris if they reach the Cup semi-finals this weekend, regardless of how far Samoa or South Africa go in the tournament.
Ireland seal Olympic qualification
It might have been a bit closer than they would have hoped, but Ireland did enough in Toulouse to secure qualification for the Olympic Games for the first time.
Despite a tough pool draw, Ireland began with an impressive 27-7 victory against hosts France that propelled them towards a Cup quarter-final against Australia.
They were undone by tries from Teagan Levi and Bienne Terita (two) but bounced back to beat Fiji in the fifth-place play-off, a result which sealed their passage to Paris.
Japan and the fifth-place play-off proved a step too far, but their job had already been done and the magnitude of an achievement that was eight years in the making was evident in the celebrations that greeted the win over Fijiana.
“This is massive for Irish rugby,” Katie Heffernan said. “It’s massive for the girls and it’s onwards and upwards from here.”