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Stacey Waaka was the star of the show as New Zealand fought back from going 14-0 down to win their sixth successive HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament title in Toulouse.
The Black Ferns Sevens had already made sure of a seventh overall Series title thanks to their results on day one and Waaka helped make sure they celebrated that achievement in style.
In the early stages of the Cup final, it looked as though the USA – who had beaten Australia in the Cup semi-finals – were about to bring an end to New Zealand’s 35-match winning run.
Sarah Hirini was shown a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on in the opening minute and the USA took full advantage, scoring twice – through Naya Tapper and Kristi Kirshe – while the captain was off the field.
However, with the USA down to six players themselves, Waaka started the comeback with a finish from close range and then played a huge role in the move that led to Jazmin Felix-Hotham notching their second try early in the second half.
It was fitting that it was player-of-the-match Waaka who provided the finish that ultimately secured the Black Ferns Sevens a 19-14 victory, which stretched their unbeaten run to 36 matches and secured another gold medal.
“I’m obviously pretty gutted with how I played, but man, to go 14 points down against a team like that and then to come back and grind out a win, I’m so proud, I’m so happy with the group and the season that we’ve had,” Hirini said.
“I’m sure the celebrations are going to go for a few days.”
Levi propels Australia to bronze
Australia recovered from their Cup semi-final disappointment, and conceding early in the bronze final, to end the hosts’ medal hopes in Toulouse.
Joanna Grisez powered over from close range to give France the ideal start in the penultimate match of the women’s tournament.
France had beaten Australia at the end of the pool stage, but it was the Series runners-up who dominated the bronze final from that moment on.
Maddison Levi helped herself to a hat-trick, two of which were assisted by her sister Teagan, while Charlotte Caslick and Dominique du Toit also contributed fine efforts as Australia ran out 33-7 winners.
Levi finished the women’s tournament as its top try scorer with 10 and extended her Series-record season haul to a scarcely believable 57.
“We’ve had a few disappointing performances over the weekend, so we did a really big review after the semi-final and just got back to our basics of competing in attack,” Caslick said.
“We finished really strong and did well with our attack completion in that game.”
Ireland, Japan make history
Ireland went into their fifth-place semi-final against Fiji, who had started the tournament in Toulouse only two points behind them in the standings, knowing that victory would secure their ticket to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
The team’s top try scorer Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe rose to the occasion, crossing the whitewash twice to take her season tally to 30 and give Ireland a 10-5 lead at half-time. Her second try came from a lung-busting run to finish off a fine team move.
Ireland dug deep in the second half to repel the ensuing Fijiana pressure and ensure they got over the line in their quest to qualify for the Games for the first time.
The size of the achievement was evident in the celebrations that greeted the final whistle. “It’s an absolute credit to the girls and the whole entire squad,” Katie Heffernan said.
“This is massive for Irish rugby, it’s massive for the girls and it’s onwards and upwards from here.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ireland struggled to back-up that performance in the fifth-place play-off against Japan, who ran out deserved 14-0 winners.
Michiyo Suda and Chiharu Nakamura scored the tries as the Sakura Sevens secured their highest ever finish as a core team at a Series tournament.
Earlier, Great Britain and Fijiana played out another tight contest as the former recovered from going 10-0 down to win the seventh-place play-off 22-17 in extra-time.
Meanwhile, Spain finished their season on a high, beating Canada 15-14 in the ninth-place play-off. Invitation side Poland won the 11th-place play-off, running in three tries to beat Brazil 19-7.