Spain are the final qualifier for rugby sevens' debut at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games after a 19-12 victory over Russia at UCD Bowl in Dublin, echoing the achievement of their men's team in Monaco last weekend.
The top two seeds lived up to their billing over the duration of the tournament, showing a ruthless finishing streak and ability to pounce on any error by their opponents, skills which have been honed on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series over the last four years.
Spain reached the final without conceding a single point, while Russia's line was breached only twice - both times by hosts Ireland in the semi-final - and they duly produced a final befitting the Olympic place at stake.
Las Leonas were undoubtedly the crowd favourite with their large and vocal support and they took the lead when Patricia Garcia spotted a gap and darted over from close range after six minutes. Spain's lively playmaker did it again, this time from further out, to send the crowd wild once more but there was still time before half-time for Daria Bobkova to run in from her own half to cut the deficit to 14-7 at half-time.
Barbara Pla gave Spain some breathing space early in the second half, but Russia guaranteed a nervous finish when Bobkova sprinted down the left wing to cut the deficit to just seven points with three minutes to go. Unfortunately for Russia, the restart didn't go 10 metres, handing Spain the ball back and they duly played out the game safely in their opponent's 22 with bodies put on the line to keep the Russians at bay.
“It’s amazing. I’m really, really happy for the team – we are the happiest girls in the world at the moment because now we get to go to the biggest sporting stage of them all in Rio. It’s an incredible feeling,” saidGarcia. “Our men qualifying last week has been the inspiration for us all week. We took their example with the teamwork we showed. I am pretty emotional but with smiles, not tears.”
Spain's qualification means they will take their place alongside Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, USA, France, Japan, Fiji, Kenya, Colombia and host nation Brazil when the women's competition gets underway at the Deodoro Stadium on 6 August.
World Rugby Head of Competitions and Performance Mark Egan added: “Congratulations to Spain on this fantastic achievement. We have seen some top sevens action over the past two days here in Dublin, which really bodes well for the future development of the women’s game but ultimately only one team could win and become the 12th team to qualify for Rio.
“Rugby’s return to the Olympics is a great opportunity and we hope it will be one of the highlights of Rio 2016 as we showcase this great sport to a new audience of hundreds of millions around the world. It’s an exciting time to be involved in rugby and I know that all our member unions are ready to make the most of this opportunity as we continue to grow the game in each of our six global regions.
“I’d like to thank all the teams for their participation in this repechage tournament and to the IRFU and its partners for putting on such a great event.”
There was some consolation for host nation Ireland despite their Olympic dream ending in the semi-finals, as their 17-5 victory over Kazakhstan in the bronze medal match secured them a place as a core team on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series for 2016-17 as the highest ranked team behind finalists Russia and Spain.
Ireland will join defending champions Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, France, USA, Russia, Fiji and Spain on the series next season with the final core team place to be confirmed at the Olympic Games.
Elsewhere, China finished the tournament on a high with an emphatic 33-0 victory over Argentina to claim fifth place, while the Cook Islands bounced back from the disappointment of seeing their Olympic qualification dream end on Saturday by beating Hong Kong 15-12 in the final of the Challenge Trophy, for teams ranked third and fourth in the pools.
Top seeds Russia had been the stand-out team on day one, scoring 26 tries in topping Pool A, and they kicked off the Championship Cup quarter-finals with a clinical performance against the spirited Argentinians, who battled bravely but saw their errors punished with Russian tries. Bobkova scored a hat-trick to keep Russia on the road to Rio 2016 with the 34-0 win. Ireland set up a semi-final with Russia after the hosts recovered from the early loss of 15s captain Niamh Briggs to injury to beat Tunisia 38-0, their running lines and pace on attack too much for the African side.
The third quarter-final was a much closer and physical encounter, Balzhan Koishybayeva scoring the only try of the first half before Kazakhstan pounced on Samoan errors to score three further tries for a 26-0 victory, barely letting their opponents out of their 22. With chants of 'Es-pa-ña!' and 'Olé, Olé, Olé!' reverberating around the UCD Bowl, Spain claimed the last semi-final spot with livewire Patricia Garcia among their try-scorers in a 21-0 win over the Ben Gollings-coached China.
The tension levels went up several notches for the semi-finals and it was Russia who scored first against hosts Ireland through Yulia Guzeva, but the crowd were on their feet when Aoife Doyle slipped through to tie the scores at 5-5 with the first try the Russians had conceded all weekend. A lapse in concentration, though, allowed Ekaterina Kazakova to edge Russia ahead with the final play of the half.
Teenager Elena Zdrokova then left the Irish defence in her wake for what proved the decision try, Alison Miller's try nothing more than consolation for Ireland after Baizat Khamidova had been sent to the sin-bin. Russia duly marched on to the final with a 19-10 win with Zdrokova cartwheeling in celebration.
With a 28-0 final score the other semi-final would seem an easier encounter for winners Spain, but it was anything but against a Kazakhstan side who were deserving of their spot in the top four. Spain simply grabbed any opportunity with both hands, Iera Echebarria and captain Elisabet Martinez both slicing through the defence for tries in the first half to the delight of their passionate fans once again.
Meanwhile, in the battle for fifth place, Argentina and China both bounced back from the disappointment of seeing their Olympic dreams ended with victories over Tunisia and Samoa respectively. Mayra Genghini set Argentina on the way to a 17-7 victory, while a great solo try by Liu Xiaoqian was the hghlight of China's 28-5 victory. The Chinese were too strong for their South American opponents, Liu Xiaoqian scoring two of their five tries in a 33-0 victory.
Rain greeted the teams at the start of day one and the error count was inevitably higher with handling errors commonplace. The Cook Islands edged past Madagascar 7-0 thanks to a penalty try to earn a semi-final with Portugal, who were more comfortable in the rain and ran in five tries in a 29-0 win over Mexico with Sara Jessica Silva and Catarina Ribero grabbing braces.
Hong Kong, determined to prove a point after missing out on the Championship Cup following a last-gasp loss to Argentina, had a first-half hat-trick for Amelie Seure to thank for a 20-0 win over Zimbabwe. They faced Venezuela in the semi-finals after they took advantage of the rain having virtually stopped to beat Trinidad and Tobago 17-0 with two tries from Daniela Diaz.
The Cook Islands continued their quest to leave Dublin with some additional luggage with a physical 24-14 victory over Portugal, captain Vaine Greig scoring twice. In that Challenge Trophy final they would face Hong Kong, the side they drew 12-12 with on day one. Hong Kong used the pace of Aggie Poon to good effect with the player claiming two tries, but the biggest cheer in the 24-5 win was reserved for Caring de Freitas' try for Venezuela.
Poon again scored twice in the final, but it was the Cook Islands who emerged the 15-12 winners from another tight battle with Hong Kong thanks to tries from Apii Nicholls, Vaine Greig and Larissa Marino-Anderson.
Zimbabwe picked up their first win of the tournament, 12-5 over Trinidad and Tobago with tries from Margaret Magwaro and Caroline Malenga, to earn a 13th place play-off against Madagascar, the 10-0 conquerors of Mexico. It was Madagascar that emerged victorious again, just as they had in the pool stages on Saturday, with Claudia Rasoarimalala scoring a hat-trick in the 22-12 win.
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