New Zealand increased their lead at the top of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series standings to 10 points after an enthralling 17-14 victory over Canada in the final of the inaugural HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens in Japan on Sunday.
The Black Ferns twice had to come from behind in the title decider and only hit the front when Michaela Blyde was worked over in the right corner with time up on the clock, sparking wild celebrations on the New Zealand bench.
In only their third meeting in a Cup final – and first since Atlanta in 2014 – it was Canada who went into the final arguably as favourites having enjoyed record wins over both Russia and Australia en route to the final, scoring 74 points and conceding none.
Canada thought they had opened the scoring through Jennifer Kish, but she lost control of the ball as she went over the line following a tackle from Blyde. However, it wasn't long before Hannah Darling raced away and, despite being tap-tackled by Portia Woodman, managed to touch down for a 7-0 lead.
A moment of magic from Niall Williams, where she scooped up a pass from Canada captain Ghislaine Landry and then raced away to score under the posts, ensured the teams went into half-time locked at 7-7 after Tyla Nathan-Wong's conversion.
Kish then edged Canada ahead once more, but only briefly as Woodman, who was named HSBC Player of the Final, raced the length of the pitch to score her seventh try of the tournament.
Nathan-Wong failed to add the conversion from out wide and so New Zealand had to score again if they were to win a third title of the season after their victories in Dubai and Las Vegas.
Fortunately for them, Kish fumbled the restart and the Black Ferns kept their composure before working the ball out for this season's top try-scorer Blyde to find a way over in the corner.
“It was close, Canada are an awesome team,” admitted New Zealand captain Sarah Goss. “The way the girls showed so much fight I am just really proud to have such an awesome group of girls around me. We train like that, we train when we’re down and know as long as there are minutes on the clock we know we have the X-factor to pull out winners like that.”
Coach Allan Bunting added: “We definitely saved the best until last in this tournament. We played with a lot of heart and character and you can't ask for much more, it was outstanding and I am really stoked for the girls and very proud. For us it was about playing longer and stronger, Canada are a really clinical team, they have been pretty consistent over the last few years so you have to play long and play well.
“I had no doubt, I knew the ladies were going to play right to the end so until that final whistle went there was a chance.”
AUSTRALIA WIN BRONZE
The bronze final was also decided late on as Australia overcame a spirited Fijiana outfit to snatch victory through Chloe Dalton's last-minute try, denying the Pacific islanders their first win in 15 meetings and their best-ever placing on the world series.
Merewai Cumu had given Fijiana the lead after World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year 2016 Charlotte Caslick was unable to cling on to her jersey in a desperate tackle, and Raijieli Daveau pounced after the hooter had sounded to make it 12-0 at half-time. Youth Olympic Games gold medallist Dominique du Toit then ran in from distance for Australia but Lavenia Tinai reasserted Fijiana's advantage.
However, Australia, with only nine fit players going into the match, rallied and first Emma Sykes and then Dalton crossed to break Fijiana hearts. The islanders remain fourth in the standings after their best result of the season and having strengthened their quest to qualify for RWC Sevens 2018 through the series.
In the semi-finals, Canada again proved too hot handle and barely allowed Australia out of their own half in the whole match. The Olympic champions, without Evania Pelite and Ellia Green due to the knee injuries they suffered in the quarter-finals, were forced to go with a more youthful line-up and Canada were too slick, Julia Greenshields grabbing a hat-trick before birthday girl Brittany Benn and Breanne Nicholas went over for a record 33-0 win – their 100th in series history – over Australia.
The second was a much closer affair with Kelly Brazier's weave through the Fijiana defence the only try of a tight first half. However, the Black Ferns Sevens seized the initiative right from the kick-off, Woodman waiting patiently for Tyla Nathan-Wong's kick to pass the 10-metre line before collecting and racing clear. She added her 141st series try shortly afterwards with another sprint clear as New Zealand ran out 21-0 winners to set up the final with Canada.
Earlier in the day, Australia were rocked by injuries to Pelite and Green inside the first minute of their quarter-final but came from behind to beat France with Emilee Cherry grabbing a brace in their 19-12 victory to become only the second player in women's series history to score 100 tries, after Woodman.
Canada were more clinical than their semi-final opponents in their 41-0 win over Russia, effectively ending the match as a contest with four first-half tries –two of them from Greenshields – before captain Ghislaine Landry grabbed a brace of her own to secure their biggest ever win over the Russians.
The third quarter-final was a much closer affair, tries from USA powerhouses Kristen Thomas and Naya Tapper giving them the edge in a tight first half. But Fijiana's quest for a first Cup semi-final appearance since 2014 in Guangzhou saw them hit back through Rusila Nagasau, Tima Ravisa and Miriama Naiobasali to triumph 26-19.
New Zealand completed the semi-final line up with first-half tries from their speedsters Woodman and Blyde – her 25th of the season – setting them on the way to a 21-5 victory over England, who were playing in their first Cup quarter-final since Dubai. The Red Roses did set up a tense finale with captain Abbie Brown's try, but a score from Williams made certain of victory for the Black Ferns Sevens.
RUSSIA BOUNCE BACK TO FIFTH
Russia clearly had a point to prove after the way they were dismantled by Canada and, unfortunately for France, they did so in their fifth place semi-final with Elena Zdrokova picking up a brace in a 26-5 win over Les Bleues. Kelsi Stockert's power and Tapper's pace looked to have put the USA on the way to victory, but England hit back to lead 26-12 with Heather Fisher among the scorers. The Women's Sevens Eagles attempted to play their get out of jail card in with tries from Stockert and captain Alev Kelter but came up just short, losing 26-24.
USA made no mistake in their final match to ensure a seventh-place finish, racing out of the blocks with two quick-fire tries from Kelly Griffin. Tapper sprinted away to add another double and, although France did score two tries of their own, there was only going to be one winner and that was the Americans. Russia then kept themselves firmly in the mix for RWC Sevens 2018 qualification by beating England 31-0 for fifth place. Zdrokova scored with time up on the clock to prevent the first scoreless half of the tournament and added a second among five Russian second-half tries as they ran riot.
IRELAND BEAT SPAIN IN CHALLENGE TROPHY
Ireland were a side transformed on Sunday and won the Challenge Trophy for the second time this season after beating Spain 26-7 in the final. The Irish had been totally out of sorts in pool play and were easily beaten by Australia, Fiji and Brazil, but Megan Williams scored two of their four tries against a Spanish side fighting to retain their core team status for next season.
In the semi-finals earlier in the day, Brazil and Ireland came face to face for the second time in Kitakyushu, but this time the outcome was different with the Irish avenging their 27-10 pool loss with a 24-5 victory, Sene Naoupu crossing for a double. The other semi-final was only settled in the final two minutes when Amaia Erbina broke away from the Japanese defence to score a second try for Spain. Mayu Shimizu had the home crowd on their feet with her try but the hosts were left to rue the number of balls they dropped when in good attacking positions after losing 14-5.
The fifth and penultimate round of the 2016-17 series takes place in Langford, Canada, on 27-28 May.