The road to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games took another turn following a pulsating HSBC New Zealand Sevens in Hamilton.
New Zealand now lead the way in both the men’s and women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings following four and three tournaments respectively.
But heading into Sydney this weekend, that tells only part of the story of the 2023 Series so far.
Black Ferns Sevens on top, USA progressing
The Black Ferns Sevens welcomed back four Rugby World Cup 2021 winners for their first home tournament since 2020 and each played a key role as the team won their second successive gold medal.
Stacey Fluhler scored six tries while Portia Woodman-Wickliffe crossed four times, but it was Michaela Blyde who once again made the headlines as she finished the tournament with 10 tries.
Three of those came in the 33-7 defeat of the USA in the final, a result which gives New Zealand a four-point lead from Australia – who won the bronze final in Hamilton – at the top of the standings following three events.
Runners-up USA, playing in their first Cup final since winning in Malaga last January, head to Sydney with two bronze medals and a silver during the 2023 Series. Crucially, in the race for a place in Paris, they now enjoy a 12-point cushion to fourth-placed Ireland and are 16 better off than France in fifth, who qualify automatically as hosts.
The top four finishers in both the men’s and women’s standings at the end of the 2023 Series will secure their tickets to the 2024 Olympic Games.
On Sunday, the USA beat Fiji in the quarter-finals before tries from Cheta Emba and Sammy Sullivan gave them a 10-7 semi-final victory against 2022 Series winners Australia.
Hosts New Zealand proved a step too far in the final, but coach Emilie Bydwell is delighted to see how her side has developed during the opening tournaments of the season.
“We are really happy with the progress shown across the weekend,” Bydwell said. “We left the last two tournaments knowing what we needed to improve on and the fact that we were able to deliver on those areas across the weekend was positive.
“However, the best part is we know that there are still areas that we can be more consistent in and while we are happy to have silver – we will now be focused on the next steps in our progression.”
Great Britain kick-started their quest for Olympic qualification in Hamilton as they beat Japan in the fifth-place play-off.
They are now sixth in the women’s standings, 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Ireland with four tournaments to play. Fiji are two points further back, while Japan – for whom sixth was their best Series showing – are now eighth with 15 points, the same number as Spain.
Argentina dig deep
The race for a top-four finish and a place at Paris 2024 is even tighter in the men’s Series as the teams depart Hamilton for Sydney.
Argentina’s gold medal, their first since their long-awaited win in Vancouver last year, has catapulted them into third place on 59 points.
Victory was secured in dramatic fashion as Los Pumas Sevens recovered from going 12-0 down against the hosts to win the final 14-12 at FMG Stadium.
“Obviously, it is spectacular to win, and doing it here in New Zealand is worth twice as much,” Argentina coach Santiago Gómez Cora said.
“But the most beautiful and important thing is that this is the third year in which this team remains competitive. As we said last year, the objective was to confirm the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics and not [be weighed down by] that historical milestone.
“The team's motto was to confirm a good year in 2022 and in 2023 to also maintain ourselves at a competitive level.
“This team keeps redoubling and keeps going for more. That speaks highly of the work that the players do every day. We are happy and proud of this team.”
Los Pumas Sevens are now four points off top spot, held by the team they beat in the final, New Zealand, and two ahead of South Africa in fourth.
The Blitzboks started the weekend level on points with Samoa at the top but a quarter-final defeat to France, and subsequent fifth-place semi-final loss to Ireland, dropped them down the standings.
Samoa, meanwhile, had to settle for ninth and are now fifth in the standings, two points adrift of South Africa.
The competitive nature of the men’s 2023 Series is such that only 11 points separate the Blitzboks (57) in fourth and ninth-placed Ireland (46), meaning that the tussle for Olympic qualification – and the title itself – should continue long into the second half of the season.
It certainly sets things up nicely for the HSBC Sydney Sevens, which gets under way on Friday at Allianz Stadium.