New Zealand retained their grip on the HSBC Canada Women's Sevens title – their third in a row at Westhills Stadium – after a hard-fought 21-17 victory over Australia in the Cup final on Sunday.
The victory meant the Black Ferns Sevens had two reasons to celebrate on the day as by reaching the Cup semi-finals they had confirmed their place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games via a top four finish in the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2019, their 17-7 victory over Spain giving them an unassailable lead over fifth-placed France in the standings with only one round remaining.
New Zealand now lead the standings with 92 points after their fourth title in five rounds, followed by USA (80), Canada (78) and Australia (74) with France now 14 points adrift of a coveted top four spot.
The trans-Tasman rivalry has been the most common final on the women's series with this the 15th occurrence in 36 tournaments, but it was in complete contrast to the 2018 final when New Zealand blew Australia away with a sublime display of attacking rugby to win 46-0.
Australia haven't beaten New Zealand or won a Cup title since the Sydney final in January 2018, but they opened the scoring when Ellia Green got away from Michaela Blyde and the covering Tyla Nathan-Wong to score in the left corner.
The Black Ferns Sevens hit back when 18-year-old Dhys Faleafaga shrugged off a tackle and flicked a pass over her shoulder to captain Sarah Hirini, who coasted over with little resistance from Australia. Their second try was similar with Nathan-Wong drawing Charlotte Caslick before offloading to Niall Williams, who cut through the gap and ran under the posts for a 14-5 lead with a minute to play in the first half.
That was enough time, though, for Australia to respond as Alicia Quirk and Caslick combined well down the left before the latter had Emma Tonegato in support to finish off the move and cut the deficit to four at the break and keep the crowd on the edge of their seats.
New Zealand increased that lead when Hirini offloaded to Nathan-Wong, who handed off Emma Sykes to run under the posts to give herself an easy conversion, but Australia kept pushing for a way back into the game with Green intercepting Williams' long pass to grab her second of the final with barely 30 seconds to go. The restart was adjudged to have been knocked forward, though, and from the resulting scrum Kelly Brazier kicked the ball out to start the celebrations.
“That was a tough final – we knew it was going to be tough coming up against Australia,” admitted Nathan-Wong, who was named HSBC Player of the Final for the second time this season. “Both teams came out hot, we worked hard and I’m proud of the girls going out there and executing our game plan, working hard for each other and leaving it all out there.
“Last year we put a pretty high score on Australia and we knew they wouldn’t let us get away with it again and they didn’t, so credit to them for coming out here and really working us – they scored some pretty good and long range tries but full credit to our girls for hanging in tough until the very end.
“It’s pretty fantastic to know that we’ve qualified our country for the Olympics especially as there’s only one tournament left. We’re going to want to work hard over these next few weeks, build towards our last tournament in France and hopefully go out there and put on another good show.”
Australia captain Sharni Williams said: “It was difficult but we definitely went out there and gave everything we had. We haven’t made a final since Sydney so that was good confidence for us getting back out there and getting into the final. We were a lot more physical than we have ever been and I’m very proud of the girls.”
USA WIN BRONZE
The Women's Sevens Eagles bounced back from a third Cup semi-final loss of the season to New Zealand by beating France 26-5 to win the bronze medal for the second year running in Langford. The first half of the bronze final was played almost entirely in France's 22 with USA only able to make the breakthrough as half-time approached with co-captain Lauren Doyle's leg drive taking her close enough to dive over. Kris Thomas added a second before half-time with Kristi Kirshe and Kayla Canett putting the result beyond doubt before a late consolation try for Séraphine Okemba.
In the first Cup semi-final, Blyde quickly announced her return after sitting out New Zealand's two previous matches by running in the opening try and it got worse for USA with Alev Kelter sent off for a dangerous tackle on Ruby Tui with barely two minutes gone. Brazier increased the lead only for Naya Tapper to evade two tackles to race down the touchline for the Women's Sevens Eagles. New Zealand weren't to be denied a fifth successive final in Langford with Brazier completing her first series hat-trick for a 26-12 win.
The other semi-final involved the teams sitting fourth and fifth in the series standings with Australia knowing that victory would increase the gap between the teams beyond the current 10 points. Samantha Treherne gave Australia the lead after a chip and chase, but Camille Grassineau and Jade Le Pesq saw France edge ahead in their bid for a first series win over the Olympic champions. However, two quick-fire tries from Tonegato saw her become the third Australian to 100 series tries and ensure her side ran out 26-19 winners.
Earlier in the quarter-finals, New Zealand had kicked off the day's action against Spain without two of their influential players in Blyde and Williams. It didn't stop them overcoming Las Leonas, although they were made to work hard for the 17-7 victory. Tui acrobatically scored their first try before Nathan-Wong burst through for a 12-0 half-time lead advantage. Maria García sliced through the defence to cut the deficit but Faleafaga eased any nerves with the Black Ferns Sevens third try and the win that confirmed their qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
The noise level ratcheted up a few notches as hosts Canada and USA took to the field for the next quarter-final, but it was the Women's Sevens Eagles who struck first when Kelter took a penalty quickly and the home side didn't react quick enough. USA continued to enjoy the best of the possession into the second half but Charity Williams then darted down the blindside and raced away to draw Canada level at 7-7. However, Kelter quickly silenced the Canadian crowd by evading two tackles and sprinting away to score the winner.
After an enthralling weekend of sevens rugby, it's @RugbyCanada's Brittany Benn who is your @DHLRugby Impact Player in langford with 48 points! #Canada7s#DHLImpactPlayer #DHLRugby pic.twitter.com/zDl5mAhg8Q— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) May 12, 2019
France had stuttered through day one with narrow wins over Fiji and Spain, but hit form against England to preserve their record of never failing to reach the semi-finals in Langford. Amy Wilson Hardy knocked on short of the line and then Le Pesq stole the ball and raced away for the opening try, before making another break that led to a try for Shannon Izar. Caroline Drouin added a third to put France in complete control before Wilson Hardy gave England hope. Les Bleues, though, wrapped up the win with Grassineau's 50th series try – first France player to reach the milestone – before Emma Uren crossed for a late consolation for a 26-12.
The last quarter-final saw 2015 runners-up Russia strike first against 2018 silver medallists Australia, Elena Zdrokova finding Baizat Khamidova out on the right with a lovely looping pass. However, Australia seized control of the match as first Williams burst through the defence to give Australia the lead before Green danced around four defenders to maintain her record of scoring in every match she's played in Langford and then created a try for Caslick. Kristina Seredina and Sariah Paki then traded tries before Tonegato made certain of a 31-12 victory for the Olympic champions.
CANADA FINISH FIFTH
Hosts Canada finished off on a winning note after first-half tries from Bianca Farella (2), Julia Greenshields and Williams set them on their way to a 31-7 victory over England in the fifth place play-off. Patricia García had earlier given Spain the perfect start in the seventh place play-off with a second-minute try but it was Russia who battled back to win 24-7 after tries from Daria Shestakova, Mikhaltsova, Zdrokova and Daria Noritsina.
In the fifth place semi-finals, Canada bounced back from their loss to USA with a dominant display against Spain, captain Ghislaine Landry crossing for two first-half tries and Williams going the length of the pitch in the 31-0 victory. England then raced into a 12-0 lead thanks to two breaks from Ellie Kildunne, but Russia tied things up at the break with a double by their own flyer Zdrokova. England weren't to be denied, though, with Uren grabbing a brace as they ran out 29-12 winners.
FIJI WIN CHALLENGE TROPHY
Fiji came out on a top in an end-to-end tussle with China to not only win the Challenge Trophy for the third series event in a row but also increase their advantage over their opponents to four points in the battle to avoid relegation. A Raijieli Davuea double had given Fiji a 19-7 lead before China fought back to tie the scores, but Vasiti Solikoviti ensured a 26-19 win for her side with a late try. Ireland finished 11th after captain Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe scored a hat-trick in their 43-5 win over invitational team Brazil.
In the first semi-final, Ireland opened the scoring from the kick-off through Murphy Crowe, but China responded with Chen Keyi selling a superb dummy to go over for their first try. Gu Yaoyao then hit the line at pace for number two before Gao Yueying found Yu Liping on the right to make it 19-7. Both sides then lost a player to the sin-bin before Murphy Crowe scored her second of the match but it wasn't enough to prevent China reaching a second Challenge Trophy final of the season. Fiji were more convincing winners over Brazil in the other semi-final, Asinate Savu scoring a hat-trick in an impressive display of power from the Pacific islanders that saw them run out 31-12 winners.
The HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2019 now moves onto Biarritz, France, for the final round on 15-16 June.