The curtain came down on a record-breaking HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2019 with a piece of history as USA ran out 26-10 winners over New Zealand in the HSBC France Women's Sevens final to win their first-ever Cup title.
The Black Ferns Sevens had already claimed the series crown – their fifth in seven series – by reaching the semi-finals but were denied a double celebration at the Stade Aguilera in Biarritz by an inspired USA performance.
New Zealand, playing in their unfamiliar white second kit, had won their last seven Cup final appearances but it was USA who struck first when Alev Kelter sped down the left wing for the opening try. Kelter then made the turnover after Kelly Brazier had sidestepped two players which ultimately led to Cheta Emba grabbing a second try for the Women’s Sevens Eagles.
Ruby Tui gave the Black Ferns Sevens hope when she picked up the ball from a ruck and charged down the touchline, Kelter chased and came close to denying the try but it was given after consultation with the TMO.
HIGHLIGHTS: @USARugby are crowned the HSBC France Women's Sevens champions and @BlackFerns lift the overall #HSBC7s series title for 2019 after a thrilling second day at #BiarritzSevens pic.twitter.com/zvUDMO78sZ— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 16, 2019
The try didn’t faze the USA, though, who took the restart after a juggle from Emba and Kelter – later named HSBC Player of the Final – slipped another tackle to race 70 metres for her second try, Tyla Nathan-Wong at least keeping her out wide to prevent the conversion, but they still trailed 19-5 at half-time.
New Zealand’s quest to become only the second team to come from behind at half-time to win a final – after Canada in Kitakyushu – wasn’t helped when Michaela Blyde was sin-binned for a deliberate knockdown and USA work co-captain Lauren Doyle over for their fourth try of the final.
Shakira Baker did manage to pull one try back for New Zealand but it wasn’t long before the USA were celebrating their first Cup title at the 37th event in HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series history.
"It was just an amazing experience – kudos to the girls back home that helped us and here. It’s just been an amazing experience," said Doyle after collecting the UL Mark of Excellence on behalf of the team. Our main thing was that it doesn’t matter who we are playing, we believe in each other and we’re going to fight for each other, stick to our game plan and it will work. [Next season] the goal is always number one."
USA coach Chris Brown added: "It’s a pleasure for me to be able to work with them and do my part but for them to stick to what we agreed to all weekend was special.
“We had to sort our culture out and make sure they wanted to play for each other, and know what it was like to put the team before themselves. We’ve got a good group here and from there we had to work out how to actually defend and show our character through our defence. That’s what we’ve done all season. We’re still missing a few cogs on the attacking side but we’re progressing."
New Zealand finished top of the standings with 110 points, 10 more than USA with Canada claiming the series bronze medal with 94 points, and Australia fourth with 86 points. This quartet have all confirmed their place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games alongside host nation Japan with USA, Canada and Olympic champions Australia booking their places in Biarritz this weekend.
Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini, who created history by becoming the first to play 200 matches on the women's series in their semi-final win over Canada, said: "This is a quality USA team and the few basic errors we made proved very costly. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt but we’ve now got to celebrate a world series win which was the goal of ours from the start of the season.
"USA are one of our rivals but the top six teams on the series are tough at any time. They’ve been there or thereabouts this season so they deserve a Cup title. They played their hearts out this weekend.
"It’s been an awesome 12 months. It’s been challenging at times as we’ve been through a lot of adversity back home but we’ve used most of the girls on our roster and that’s a huge testament to those girls. We’re pretty happy to be bringing home a series title – our fifth one in seven years."
While New Zealand and USA celebrated titles, there was disappointment for China who were relegated from the series after one year back as a core team. China had played some of their best rugby of the season in Biarritz, reaching their first Cup quarter-final this season, but Fiji's victory in the Challenge Trophy meant the teams both finished on 21 points with the Pacific Islanders' better points difference seeing them remain a core team next season.
CANADA WIN BRONZE
Eight teams have now qualified for @Tokyo2020 Olympic Games through the #HSBC7s World Rugby Sevens Series 2019 after securing a top-four finish in the men’s and women’s competitions.https://t.co/2KFQL01WH0— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 16, 2019
Canada had won their past 12 series meetings with Spain and they started the better of the teams in the bronze final with Bianca Farella and Brittany Benn touching down to give them a 12-0 lead. However, Spain drew on their fans’ enthusiasm to hit the front with tries either side of half-time by Maria Losada and Elisabet Martinez. Spain looked to be set for a first medal since winning bronze in the first-ever series round in Dubai in 2012 as they kept up the pressure in the Canadian 22, but Anne Fernandez de Corres’ attempted kick into space was blocked and Charity Williams went down the other end to score the winning try and leave Las Leonas devastated.
Spain, playing in only their third Cup semi-final in series history, had earlier scored first when captain Barbara Pla burst through, slipping a tackle to race clear unchallenged. USA, though, are no strangers to semi-finals as the only team to reach every one on the 2019 series, and they were quickly level after Naya Tapper sliced through the Las Leonas' defence. The score looked like it would stay at 7-5 until with the last play of the half USA hit the front after co-captain Doyle went over. Kelter struck early in the second half, having sat out their quarter-final after picking up two yellows against France on day one, scored early in the second half before Tapper's second try sealed victory for the Women's Sevens Eagles and ended their run of four semi-final defeats in a row since reaching the title decider in Glendale.
New Zealand had won their last 12 Cup semi-finals going into this meeting with long-time rivals Canada, a side they were on a nine-match winning streak against and they struck first through Alena Saili and and Nathan-Wong inside four minutes to lead 14-0. It could have been more had Blyde been able to escape from Williams, but instead it was Canada who cut the deficit with a try by Karen Paquin. Tui restored the Black Ferns Sevens' two-try cushion with a run-in and Canada could only manage a last-minute try from Williams as New Zealand kept alive hopes for a fifth Cup title of the season to go with their fifth series title.
AUSTRALIA FINISH FIFTH
Charlotte Caslick gave Australia the perfect start in the fifth place play-off with France, running down the touchline to score in the first minute. The two sides traded tries to leave the match finally balanced at 12-10 until Ellia Green sprinted away for two tries to clinch a 24-10 victory for Australia over the side they had pipped to the final Tokyo 2020 spot via the series.
China already knew they were relegated by the time they took to the field against Russia in the seventh place play-off, but they ensured they won their last match as a core team on the 2019 series with a strong performance, tries from Lyu Hewen and Yang Xu giving them a 12-0 lead before Alena Mikhaltsova's try late in the first half. Chen Keyi broke clear for their third try and, despite Baizat Khamidova dotting down for Russia, China wrapped up the 26-12 win thanks to Ruan Hongting's try.
In the fifth place semi-finals Australia bounced back from their loss to Spain with a five-try, 31-21 win over Russia to guarantee a top six finish in Biarritz. Emma Tonegato and Evania Pelite scored a try in each half with Green scoring the record breaking 1,143rd try of the series, beating the 2014-15 record when there were also six tournaments. In the other, France twice had to come from behind against China to triumph 21-14 after Coralie Bertrand's late try broke the deadlock.
Earlier in the quarter-finals, Spain delighted their huge contingent in the crowd by scoring the day's opening try against Australia, Patricia Garcia bursting through and just having enough in the legs to make the line for their first try against Australia at this stage since 2014. Spain looked set to score again late in the half but Losada lost the ball and Australia went the length of the field with Green dotting down under the posts for a 7-5 lead. Australia scored again when Caslick got a boot on a kick through before the Spanish defender for an easy dot down. Spain weren't to be denied, though, as Lide Erbina sprinted clear and kicked out of an attempted tackle before Australia looked to have a kick-through covered only to allow Paula Requena to get her hand to ball first to ground over the line to seal a 15-14 win.
As the excitement died down after Spain’s victory that also denied Australia the chance to confirm their place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, USA raced into a 10-0 lead with tries by Ilona Maher and Kris Thomas in the second Cup quarter-final. Russia hit back with tries by Kristina Seredina and Elena Zdrokova either side of Tapper’s effort for the Women's Sevens Eagles, but Thomas’s second and another from Rookie of the Year nominee Kristi Kirshe wrapped up the 27-12 win.
France’s faint hopes of claiming the final ticket to Tokyo 2020 through the series rested on this match with victory essential, but it was Canada who burst out of the blocks with tries by Caroline Crossley and Farella for a 12-0 lead to the dismay of the home crowd. France created a few opportunities but either couldn’t find a way through the solid red wall or their final pass went astray with Les Bleues only able to manage a Camille Grassineau try as a consolation in the final minute. The defeat confirmed Australia as the fourth and final qualifier for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games through the series.
The remaining quarter-final brought together two teams with very different agendas, New Zealand knew victory would secure a fifth series title while China are fighting to avoid relegation from the series. Blyde scored two early tries before Saili shrugged off tackles to score and make it 19-0 to the Black Ferns Sevens at half-time. Blyde then completed her hat-trick before further scores from Terina Te Tamaki and Tui wrapped up the 36-0 win to set up a semi-final with Canada.
FIJI WIN CHALLENGE TROPHY
Fiji not only won a fourth Challenge Trophy in a row with their 27-10 win over England in the final but also secured their place as a core team on the 2020 series in the process, because if even China went on to win their seventh place play-off against Russia to finish on 21 points too, the Pacific Islanders' points difference is better. Celia Quansah scored the first of her two tries to open the scoring, but Fiji didn't look back after tries from Akanisi Sokoiwasa, Ana Maria Roqica and Viniana Riwai put them 17-7 ahead at half-time. Raijieli Daveua and Ana Maria Naimasi added tries to allow Fiji to finish the season on a positive note in a match that also saw England captain Claire Allan take to the field for the last time on the series.
Scotland were another team celebrating after beating Ireland 26-14 in the 11th place play-off to claim their first-ever series victory, a just reward for their performances over the weekend as the invitational team in Biarritz. Lisa Thomson's try on the stroke of half-time edged Scotland into the lead for the second time after Megan Gaffney's opening try and they would not relinquish it, Rhona Lloyd and captain Helen Nelson adding second-half tries to become the first invitational team to win a match on the 2019 series.
In the semi-finals, England bounced back from the disappointment of missing out on the quarter-finals with a 24-17 victory over England courtesy of tries by Deborah Fleming, Beth Wilcock, Heather Fisher and Quansah. Fiji then knew that victory was a must if they were to boost their chances of winning their relegation battle with China, and while they were pushed all the way by invitational team Scotland they ran out 31-10 winners with Daveua scoring a try in each half.