Double glory for New Zealand at HSBC Sydney Sevens
The Black Ferns Sevens and All Blacks Sevens increase their leads at the top of the standings with emphatic victories, against France and South Africa respectively.
As the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023 continues apace, the race for both the title and Olympic qualification is taking shape.
New Zealand reigned supreme in the men’s and women’s tournaments at the HSBC Sydney Sevens over the weekend to consolidate their place at the top of both standings.
Following their 35-0 defeat of France in the Cup final on Sunday, the Black Ferns Sevens are now 12 points clear of Australia and the USA with only three of the seven tournaments left to play.
The All Blacks Sevens are also top of the pile, having played five of 11 men’s tournaments, and their first gold medal of the season has enabled them to open up a nine-point cushion on beaten Cup finalists South Africa.
Of course, the title is not the only prize on offer in 2023 and results in Sydney have had an equally telling impact on the race for the top four, and a place at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
Below we recap what the weekend’s events at Allianz Stadium mean for the season ahead.
Following runners-up finishes in Cape Town and Hamilton, it proved to be third time lucky for the All Blacks Sevens as they won their first gold medal of the 2023 Series.
Akuila Rokolisoa ended the weekend as the tournament’s top-scorer with 50 points and he supplied a try and two conversions in New Zealand’s comprehensive 38-0 defeat of South Africa in the men’s Cup final at Allianz Stadium.
With six tournaments to play, victory gives the All Blacks Sevens an impressive lead at the top of the standings but they are not as comfortable as their female counterparts.
The All Blacks Sevens are the fifth different men’s gold medallists in five tournaments and their nine-point advantage over the Blitzboks is far from unassailable with more than half the season to go.
Similarly, their grip on Olympic qualification is not as tight as it may first appear. The teams that finish in the top four of both the men’s and women’s 2023 Series will take their place at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
However, with hosts France, already assured to play at their home Games, currently fourth in both standings, the tickets would transfer to the fifth-placed teams.
In the men’s standings, that team is Fiji following five events, with Ben Gollings’ side tied on 67 points with sixth-placed Argentina. That 18-point gap could narrow significantly were the All Blacks Sevens to suffer a loss of form in Los Angeles next month.
The competitive nature of the 2023 men’s Series was highlighted in Sydney as the USA dropped from second to seventh on the back of their ninth-place semi-final defeat to Los Pumas Sevens, the winners a week earlier in Hamilton
With a maximum 132 points on offer across the remaining six men’s tournaments of the Series, only 10 points separate Samoa in third from ninth-placed Ireland, who continue to put distance between them and the teams below.
A podium finish from Ireland, Australia or the USA in Los Angeles would catapult them right back into contention not only for Olympic qualification but the overall title as well.
At the other end of the standings, Japan find themselves as the lowest-ranked core team, 18 points adrift of Uruguay (24 points), who occupy 11th place and potential safety.
Whichever core team finishes lowest in the 2023 Series will be relegated to the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series 2024, while those ranked 12th to 14th will compete against the Challenger Series 2023 winner for the 12th and final position on the 2024 Series.
Kenya (21 points), Spain (18) and Canada (14) are also in danger of losing their core team status with six tournaments to play.
We have now passed the halfway stage in the 2023 women’s Series and the Black Ferns Sevens will enter the upcoming five-week break full of confidence.
Three successive Cup final victories have put them in a commanding position as they chase a seventh Series title and a ticket to Paris.
If they are able to secure 49 points from the next three tournaments, starting in Vancouver in March, then they would be guaranteed to finish the season as champions.
The Black Ferns Sevens’ hopes of automatic Olympic qualification appear even rosier. The Series leaders enjoy a 26-point lead over fifth-placed Ireland and are 42 points better off than Fiji and Great Britain, in sixth and seventh respectively.
One blot on an otherwise spotless weekend for the Black Ferns Sevens was an injury to try-machine Michaela Blyde.
However, Jazmin Felix-Hotham deputised superbly on Sunday, scoring once in the 41-0 semi-final win against Ireland and twice as France were beaten in the final.
At the other end of the experience spectrum, Chloé Pelle became only the 10th woman to make 200 Series appearances, when she started France’s semi-final victory against the USA.
The previous day, Pelle had scored the first of her side’s two tries as they snuck past Australia in the quarter-finals, and it was a disappointing weekend for the hosts as they lost ground on New Zealand.
Coach Tim Walsh was “not looking for any excuses” though, as he evaluated a weekend in which his team failed to make the Cup semi-finals for the first time in three years. Australia recovered to beat Fiji in the fifth-place play-off.
“In age, [we’re] young and we’ve got some learning to do, but I don’t like saying ‘oh they’re a young team’,” Walsh said.
“They’re a team that’s performed very well and got a lot of experience despite their age, so that’s not an out for us.
“This is an unknown situation in terms of the distractions that are forthcoming being here, and the excitement and emotional energy.
“It’s certainly a character magnification and something which they have worked hard at and they came out here and gave everything, but they’ve got to be able to do it at both ends in attack and D.”
Following four tournaments, defending Series champions Australia are level with the USA on 66 points, 14 points ahead of France and Ireland and 30 points clear of Fiji and Great Britain.
At the foot of the standings, Japan now enjoy a 10-point cushion over 11th-placed Brazil.
Japan finished eighth in Sydney, backing up sixth place in Hamilton, to move onto 21 points and put some breathing space between them and the three teams below them. Spain are four points further back, while 10th-place Canada have 16 points, five more than Brazil.