The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series was decided on the final day of the series as Fiji beat the USA in the Cup semi-finals to secure a fourth world series title.
Gareth Baber’s outfit, who went into this last stop of the series two points ahead of the USA, marched on to cap their series-clinching day with the tournament victory after beating New Zealand 35-24 in the Cup final.
After losing their last two Cup finals on French soil, against France in 2005 and Samoa in 2016, Fiji scored their first points in this year’s final after just 30 seconds. Napolioni Bolaca’s try was converted and then quickly added to by Meli Derenalagi.
The freshly crowned series winners kept their foot firmly on the gas as the HSBC Player of the Final Bolaca accumulated 18 of their 28 first-half points. With a 28-7 lead, they plumped their cushion further before New Zealand's response arrived. Regan Ware crossed twice for the All Blacks Sevens and Dylan Collier added another try to produce the final 35-24 scoreline.
"Last year we came here and we were further in front but we did not have the wherewithal to finish it off. That was quite painful," said head coach Baber, who received the UL Mark of Excellence after the Cup final for the season’s work.
"I thought that the back end of the season, carrying on from Hong Kong with Singapore, London last week and to round it off as we did, is pretty special. It’s all credit to everybody back home in Fiji, everybody who has supported us and kept patient. But, most of all to the staff and the quality outfit that we have playing for us."
The USA had never finished higher than fifth in the world series standings but their standout season, which included seven podium finishes and reaching every Cup semi-final, saw them secure second position in the final standings and fourth place in Paris. Mike Friday’s side were beaten 24-7 in the bronze final by a powerful performance from South Africa. Despite the loss of both the bronze medal and the world series title, the head coach was full of praise of his team’s work and fortitude.
"I'm immensely proud of the character and where we’ve come as a group," said Friday. "To break through that glass ceiling of the top four and push the world series right to the penultimate game is a credit to the way that the boys have approached and delivered this season. But there’s still some learnings for us which is a good thing, it means that there’s growth. If there is growth there is potential and we can kick on and hopefully learn from these mistakes to make us better for next year."
Beaten Cup finalists at the Stade Jean-Bouin, New Zealand finished third in the overall standings with Andrew Knewstubb ending the 10 rounds as the top points-scorer on the world series.
In all, the final day of action at the Stade Jean-Bouin was a fitting finale to an incredible season and one that saw Fiji, New Zealand, the USA and South Africa all qualify for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Japan, the side that finished 15th in the world series standings and lost their place as a core team for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2020, will also be at the Olympics as host nation.
The title-race drama started early on the second day as Fiji took part in the first Cup quarter-final and the USA ran out in the second. Both of the title-hunting sides had to turn around deficits in order to set up a world series-deciding meeting in the last-four.
In their Cup quarter-final, Fiji found themselves five points down at half-time against a passion-fuelled France and Jean Pascal Barraque’s try was greeted by a cacophony of noise. Despite that, head coach Gareth Baber remained calm at the interval and his words had the desired impact as Fiji scored 24 unanswered points with their four second-half tries ensuring they completed their first job of the day.
As a result, the USA knew they had to win their Cup quarter-final against Kenya to avoid handing the world series title to Fiji at that moment. Kenya, playing in their first Cup quarter-final of the 2019 world series, started like a freight train as tries from Johnstone Olindi and Nelson Oyoo were converted by Michael Wanjala to go 14-0 up. The USA hit back strongly. After putting one try on the board before half-time, they quickly made it a two-point game at 14-12 and surged on from there. The side’s fightback was spearheaded by their captain, Madison Hughes, and the victory created a season-defining Cup semi-final against Fiji.
The meeting between the two saw Friday’s men have early opportunities to score the first points but they were missed. In contrast, Jerry Tuwai’s playmaking skills and Vilimoni Botitu’s offload set up Meli Derenalagi. Shortly after, Sevuloni Mocenacagi added Fiji’s second try before Tuwai spent two minutes in the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on. At the second time of asking, Isles was able to take advantage of the extra man but he then left the field injured, and Fiji finished the half with the last word to hold a 19-7 advantage.
The points scoring in the second seven minutes commenced with Botitu reading Hughes’ pass to Martin Iosefo like a book. His conversion secured a 19-point cushion and, although Kevon Williams added a final try for the USA, victory and the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2019 title belonged to Fiji.
The most capped @Scotlandteam sevens player of all time with 74 tournaments to his name.— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) 2 June 2019
Scott Riddell scores in his final ever match.
This is why we love the game. Moments like this. pic.twitter.com/6JNSuZvry9
Behind the podium finishers in Paris, the hosts France played a breathless second day of rugby to take fifth position. They fell to Fiji in the Cup quarter-final before thrilling the crowd with an extra-time golden point win over Kenya in the fifth place semi-finals. The cherry on top was their final outing as they scored six tries in total, three from the inspired Stephen Parez, and that sealed a 40-5 victory over Samoa.
Canada finish their season’s work by triumphantly lifting the Challenge Trophy after a 28-12 win over Ireland, who will be a core team on the series next year. Earlier positive results against Wales and England had created their chance to secure silverware in the final.
Finally, Scotland clinched 13th place in Paris by defeating Japan for the second time in two days. Both occasions were dramatic finishes and the second saw Scott Riddell mark his last appearance for his country on the world series, by scoring the golden points in extra time.
The attention for many of the sides will now turn to Olympic qualification tournaments whilst the final round of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series 2019 arrives on 15-16 of June in Biarritz.