It may have been the lowest scoring final in HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series history, but Canada's 7-5 victory over England in the HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens final was a nail-biting encounter that was only settled with the final kick of the game at Mikuni World Stadium on Sunday.
England looked on course to claim their first Cup title since April 2016 as the clock turned to red with them leading 5-0 after Amy Wilson Hardy's try late in the first half, but Canada dug deep and worked their way from one end of the field to the other before captain Ghislaine Landry found a gap in the defence to run round behind the posts to give herself a straightforward conversion to win the match.
REACTION: @RugbyCanada coach @johntaitrugby joked that his players were more composed than he was on the sidelines as they came back to score a last-gasp winning try in the #Kitakyushu7s Cup final! pic.twitter.com/Jq8MEFEDhB— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) April 21, 2019
Landry, playing in her 30th series tournament, made no mistake with the conversion to break English hearts and secure a first title for Canada since February 2017 to ensure they leave Japanese shores far happier than 12 months ago when they posted their worst ever finish of 11th.
Canada's victory has moved them up to second place in the series standings with 66 points, now only six behind New Zealand who finished fifth in Kitakyushu. Bronze medallists USA have slipped to third as a result on 64 points with defending series champions Australia fourth with 56 and France fifth on 46.
With the top four teams in the series to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the significance of this success was not lost on HSBC Player of the Final Landry with Canada now sitting 20 points clear of France with only two rounds remaining on home soil in Langford and in Biarritz, France.
"It's huge, we know that [Olympic qualification] is what it is all about. That is our main goal this season and to get a Cup final on top of that is a good feeling," Landry said.
"It was such a fight, time is up and the girls kept their composure and to be able to finish that off feels pretty great. Everything we threw at them they had an answer for, so testament to England, they had a great weekend and gave us everything they had in that final. Sevens is such a hard game and in the last play of the last game it is a bit of a battle of the mind and we came out on top in that."
Coach John Tait added: "Our goal for this season was to come top four and take one of those Olympic qualifier spots so we took a massive step towards that this weekend and that is just what we are going to keep focusing on. We will look to perform better, I don't think we hit our stride fully in this tournament and that is encouraging as we won. If we can put our attack together with some of the defence we played I think that is a lot of positives to come."
USA SECURE BRONZE
France could not have asked for a better start in the battle for the bronze medal after tries for Carla Neisen and Anne-Cécile Ciofani – her ninth of the weekend – gave the 2018 runners-up a 12-0 advantage with just over three minutes gone. However, USA fought back to tie the scores at half-time with tries by Ilona Maher and co-captain Lauren Doyle. The second half was all about the USA with France having little possession to work with, Naya Tapper scoring tries either side a Kristi Kirshe effort to put the match beyond doubt before Doyle grabbed a second of her own.
History had earlier been made with the semi-finals not featuring New Zealand or Australia for the first time in series history. The first semi-final was an North American affair between USA and Canada and the first half turned on a yellow card for Alev Kelter for a high tackle. From the resulting penalty a clever kick along the ground by Landry gave Bianca Farella an easy run in and Julia Greenshields doubled the lead before Doyle scored on half-time to bring USA back to 14-7 behind. Farella added a second try before Landry took on three players and raced 70 metres to almost put the match beyond doubt. Kelter thought she'd pulled a try back only for it to be ruled out for a forward pass and USA could only manage a late consolation for Doyle to go down 24-12.
The other semi-final – an all-European showdown between France and England – was a closer affair ultimately settled by the ever-consistent boot of Holly Aitchison. Les Bleues made the perfect start with Séraphine Okemba scoring the opening try inside two minutes but England responded through captain Abbie Brown. The impressive Ciofani then beat four players to run in her seventh of the weekend, but Emma Uren tied the scores at 12-12 at half-time. Some great footballing skills by Shannon Izar saw her control a loose pass and work it wide for Ciofani to score again, but England weren't done as Brown darted through a gap and ran in from long range with Aitchison adding the conversion to snatch the 19-17 win.
In the Cup quarter-finals, Landry had given Canada the perfect start in the day's opening match against Russia before Charity Williams came off the bench to score with her first touch of the ball. Russia came close to scoring at the end of the first half, but Baizat Khamidova was hauled down and Karen Paquin – playing her first tournament for nearly three years – saved the day by earning the penalty. Paquin scored Canada's third try within a minute of the restart, before Khamidova and Elena Zdrokova raced clear to give Russia hope only for Canada to hold out for the 17-14 victory.
New Zealand had won their past seven meetings with USA and were desperate to bounce back after a disappointing day one, but again started shakily and found it difficult to get out of their own half. Tapper opened the scoring before hauling down Alena Saili as she broke for the line, New Zealand quickly spun the ball right for Dhys Falaefaga to score but went further behind when Kris Thomas evaded a desperate lunge by Tyla Nathan-Wong to race away on the hooter for a 12-5 half-time lead. Kelter increased the lead with a run in, but the Black Ferns Sevens fought back with two tries from Niall Williams on her 31st birthday to tie the scores at 19-19. USA – the last team to beat New Zealand in a Cup quarter-final in Dubai back in 2017 – were not to be denied, though, with Kirshe running in the winner.
England had not reached a Cup semi-final since Dubai in 2016 but, just as they had done to Ireland on day one, they completely shut down Australia with their physicality in the third quarter-final to win 21-7. They scored early in each half through Alex Matthews and Helena Rowland to lead 14-0 before Aitchison anticipated a pass from Emma Tonegato to intercept and run in a third try which she also converted. Australia were shell-shocked and couldn't find a way through the England defence until the dying seconds when Tonegato crossed for a consolation try.
An all-European semi-final was guaranteed with France, the conquerors of defending champions New Zealand on day one, meeting Ireland in the last quarter-final. France were determined to ensure they backed up that win with another but had to wait until the stroke of half-time for the opening try, through Ciofani after pressure on the Irish line. Okemba sprinted down the right touchline to score within 30 seconds of the restart to give Les Bleues some breathing space and Chloé Pelle's try wrapped up the 19-0 victory and a place in the semi-finals for the second year running.
NEW ZEALAND FINISH FIFTH
New Zealand produced a scintillating first-half display of attacking rugby in the fifth place play-off with captain Hirini scoring two of their five tries for a 29-0 lead against Australia, although it was teenager Faleafaga's one-handed grounding that was the pick of the bunch. When Nathan-Wong scored it looked bleak for Australia, but instead the match turned on its head as Mahalia Murphy, Ellia Green, Sykes and Charlotte Caslick – later named DHL Impact Player for the tournament – crossed to make the final score 34-26. It may have come in defeat, but Green's try was her 100th in series history and the 200th of the weekend. Ireland had gone into the seventh place play-off without their injured captain Lucy Mulhall, but two tries from Eve Higgins helped them beat Russia 15-14 in a match that flowed one way and then the other.
In the fifth place semi-finals, New Zealand bounced back from two successive defeats with an emphatic 36-0 defeat of Russia, the side that had halted their record-equalling run of 37 consecutive victories on the series with a 17-17 draw on day one. Ruby Tui began the scoring after good work from Saili and Falaefaga before Nathan-Wong dotted down late in the first half. Shakira Baker increased the lead before three quick-fire tries – two of them by captain Hirini – put the smile back on the faces of the Black Ferns Sevens with the victory.
After an enthralling weekend of sevens rugby, it's @Aussie7s @CharlieCaslick who is your @DHLRugby Impact Player in Kitakyushu with some big numbers #Kitakyushu7s#DHLImpactPlayer #DHLRugby pic.twitter.com/H9BKbCZFrz— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) April 21, 2019
Australia, playing at this stage for the second time this series, had made 15 tackles to Ireland's none when they stole the ball and worked it quickly out for Sykes to run in the opening try. However, the lead was brief as Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe got on the outside and raced away to give Ireland a 7-5 lead. Australia hit back on the stroke of half-time when quick hands from Evania Pelite released Tonegato, who had just enough pace to reach the line under pressure from Hannah Tyrrell. The Olympic champions wrapped up the 24-7 win with further tries from Tonegato, Caslick and Sariah Paki – the latter their 800th series try.
FIJI WIN CHALLENGE TROPHY
The battle to avoid relegation from the series got a little bit tighter as well after Fiji ran out 41-21 winners over Spain in the Challenge Trophy final thanks to a hat-trick from Asinate Savu and double from Raijieli Daveua. Fiji's win means that only six points separate the three teams in danger with Spain ninth on 16 points, three clear of their conquerors with China on 10. China finished their first tournament under new head coach Sean Horan with a hard-fought 7-0 win over hosts Japan in the 11th place play-off, Guy Yaoyao receiving quick ball from a lineout and darting through a gap to run in the only try of the match.
The first semi-final was a repeat of the Pool B match which saw Spain beat China 31-26. Ingrid Algar and Elisabet Martinez had given Spain a 12-0 half-time lead, but an overthrown lineout gave China a way back in and they were able to give Liu Xioaquin space to run in the try. They couldn't find another, though, as Spain's experienced players ensured they saw out the 12-5 victory. Japan gave the home crowd something to cheer about with well-worked tries by Honoka Tsutsumi and Yume Hirano giving them a 12-7 half-time lead. Fiji, though hit back in the second half with three tries, including the second of the match for Ana Maria Naimasi – the 150th try of the weekend – to triumph 28-17.
The HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2019 now moves onto Langford in Victoria, Canada, for the penultimate round on 11-12 May.