At the conclusion of the day’s play, what crowd that had turned up witnessed another fine example of the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Series. With some searing pace on show, ferocious fending and bone-rattling tackles, day one at the Wellington Sevens had shown the best teams were here to perform.
The focus of the day was on beginning with a good win, to ‘hit the ground running’ and for mine, Fiji and New Zealand each performed that task well. With South Africa, Kenya, Argentina and Australia each having little trouble, the earliest upset was the United States beating Samoa who were (almost) playing at home. They would regret allowing the Eagles to steal a late try, as would France who in the opening game looked almost able to hold off England until a late Dan Bibby try cursed them to a defeat.
Some stars came out to play too. The marketing had been around the inclusion of Sonny Bill Williams, so it was a coup when he was substituted on in the All Black Sevens game, for the tireless August Pulu to make a break and selflessly share the ball for Sonny Bill to score on debut, first pass in a Sevens game. But even though it got rousing applause, he was out-performed by Akira Ioane (pictured) who crossed for two tries and shows as much skill at Sevens, as he did in the Under 20 Rugby World Cup last year. His star, like his brothers Reiko did, will shine brightly in Wellington.
So the teams that worked to plan seemed to get a good workout, Samoa and France disappointing their followers and had it all ahead of them to get maximum rewards after slipping up so early.
RESULTS: France 14 England 17 | United States (USA) 24 Samoa 20 | Argentina 19 Wales 12 | Fiji 45 Japan 7 | Kenya 31 Canada 7 | Australia 19 Portugal 12 | South Africa (RSA) 28 Scotland 5 | New Zealand (NZL) 38 Russia 7
Generally, the crowd plays a major part in any of the legs of this popular World Sevens Series, but sadly for organizers and the NZ Rugby administrators, the empty seats were quite galling to be honest. Only 14,000 were in attendance and I myself chose not to attend, but I was not alone. It appears that the ‘love affair’ with the Wellington Sevens weekend may have past and with more empty seats than filled, it may point to another venue or nation [sadly] being future hosts.
On the plus side, the colour and spectator involvement was not diminished. A ‘Costume Catwalk’ competition was organised, so we saw the usual and the more unusual outfits on show yet again. So popular, in fact Cory Jane and Julian Savea went dressed as Zombies, so even local Hurricanes players were enjoying themselves. And that is the most important factor. Enjoyment.
The players too enjoyed themselves. Maybe not if you were on the other end of a loss, nor if you were given the big fend. In sevens the ability to hold off tacklers is an essential tool, with Fiji and Samoa traditional proponents of this art, but today Kenyan and even French and Australian players are using this technique to keep on the outside of their opponents. “Forwards playing like backs” is the best quote from sevens great Christain Cullen.
As teams completed their second pool games, we saw a trend of many scoring chances after the hooter had sounded. It had impacted on many close matches, and continued when a tight match between Australia and Canada ended at 26-22. The Aussies would be lucky to survive, as the Canadians really came back from 19-12 at halftime and will be kicking themselves. It can be that close in some games, while the Blitzboks were the first side to crack a half century when winning 54-0 against a poor performing Russian side.
Wales had a moment in their second match, very nearly taking a half time lead into the break, only for a kick-chase recovery to fall down. They may have frightened Ben Ryan’s men, as they came out and blasted a quick 26 points to see off the northerners. And on the flip side, the NZ side made a solid start by using their seasoned campaigners like Tim Mikkelson and Joe Webber proving you need substance first, before excitement can come from men like Ardie Savea (a huge fend on Jamie Farndale might haunt that defender for years to come)
RESULTS: France 28 Samoa 12 | USA 5 England 19 | Arg 31 Japan 14 | Fiji 33 Wales 7 | Kenya 26 Portugal 5 | Aus 26 Canada 22 | RSA 54 Russia 0 | NZL 27 Scotland 7
After two matches, most teams had met their standards. Canada would be disappointed though, as would Samoa, Wales and Scotland but the competition was so close that every side could redeem themselves in a blink of an eye.
France and the USA had a win and a loss each, so their last pool game against one another was a game of highs and lows. Not many infractions had been called over the first 16 matches, but France suffered badly for a Yellow Card handed to Fulgence Ouedraogo. That misdemeanor allowed the Eagles to go into halftime ahead 15-7 but as mentioned, when Ouedraogo returned to the field, within a blink of the eye and he redeemed himself with a try–amazing transformation in fortune. The next score came from the US team and it was then a case of ‘catch-up rugby’ which France could not recover from.
The upset came again, this time in the form of Samoa. My colleague Jovilisi Waqa called this his ‘Match of the Day’. After two losses, the Damian McGrath coached Samoan side called on all their class to run-up a 14-0 half time lead to hold out England 17-14 and spoiled an unbeaten run from the English team. If only they could be consistent and put games together they will be back in the reckoning Jovilisi believes, but that side will be happy to reach the quarter finals (at very least) with no injuries and ready to prove us all wrong.
Australia were probably the luckiest side to go through unbeaten. Kenya had two wins and would have wanted to peak for the third game, and very nearly did. Australia took time to beat Canada in the earlier match, and will need to learn from these tight wins if they wish to proceed to a final.
Argentina were denied the upset, Fiji being the stronger side in running out 31-10, but Los Pumas are smart and would know that if they keep their weaponry fit for Day Two then it would set them up nicely. The introduction of the 5 man Interchange bench has been a revelation. All sides have brought new men on, and while a few minutes does not give much time to even break a sweat, for a player it allows them to soak up the atmosphere, the conditions and speed of the game.
It looks super fast on replay but some games in the afternoon/evening stage had long periods of defence. Humid conditions may have sapped energy but it still showed the organised defensive lines, as well as in attack. A couple of set-moves from Australia and NZ proved that their strengths still lay in their preparation, while the ability to react on your feet helped Fiji put away men like Savanaca Rawaca and bring the huge number of Fiji fans to their feet (hometown almost)
RESULTS: England 14 Samoa 17 | France 21 USA 29 | Wales 33 Japan 28 | Arg 10 Fiji 31 | Canada 42 Portugal 7 | Kenya 12 Aus 17 | Scotland 19 Russia 17 | RSA 14 NZL 19
Three teams are unbeaten at the conclusion of Day One at the Wellington Sevens; Fiji, Australia and New Zealand, but as South Africa proved in Cape Town, a loss does not end your title hopes. Positive responses from players and management will help any side through their opening encounter, and then all relevant matches thereafter. Some of the teams at the top do need to watch for others to cut them down, as proved in the National Sevens tournament a fortnight ago. Favourites Waikato were cut-down due to being caught napping–no team can be discounted on Sunday.
CUP QUARTER FINALS: New Zealand V Kenya (2.02pm) England v Argentina (2.24pm) Australia v South Africa (2.46pm) Fiji v United States (3.08pm)
The winner of leg three in the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Series will be drawn from these qualifying games, but the bowl and shield competition is not over. With 16 teams, you are have to be good to stay within the Top 10, but in an Olympic contest only 12 teams compete. Positions nine to 12 are still valuable, so expect Samoa to be confident, Canada too and France, Scotland and Wales must all fancy themselves taking away some silverware.
BOWL QUARTER FINALS: Scotland v Portugal | France v Japan | Canada v Russia | Wales v Samoa
First match of Day Two kicks-off at 11:30am. Coverage is on Sky Sport in NZ and streamed on the World Rugby site. Last Word on Sports will provide a full wrap of Day Two final results and wishes all teams the very best. And for a bigger crowd to walk-up to Westpac Stadium! The visual effect of all those yellow seats must be filled to help retain this prominent stop on the World Sevens Series circuit.
Image courtesy of World Rugby website.