New Zealand's journey to gold at Tokyo 2020 Olympic rugby sevens
We take a look back at how New Zealand’s women lived up to their pre-tournament billing as red-hot favourites for the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
As reigning champions of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, Rugby World Cup Sevens and Commonwealth Games, all that was missing from the Black Ferns Sevens trophy cabinet as they headed to Tokyo was an Olympic gold medal.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't the one thing that I really wanted,” said New Zealand’s Olympic flag bearer and the Black Ferns Sevens most-capped player, Sarah Hirini, before the tournament began.
“For most of us that's the goal, that's all we think about – winning gold and bringing home gold for New Zealand."
Victory in the Trans-Tasman Sevens and Oceania Sevens on the eve of the Olympic Games had only served to underline the dominance they had enjoyed since losing in the Rio final to Australia in 2016, but no-one inside the New Zealand camp was taking anything for granted in Tokyo, and rightly so.
Great Britain gave the Rio silver medallists an almighty scare in the pool stages and extra-time was needed to beat Fijiana in the semi-finals before the five-year wait to become Olympic champions came to a successful conclusion with a 26-12 victory in the final against repechage qualifiers France.
Here’s how they put the disappointment of that near-miss in Rio behind them to finish on top of the podium.
New Zealand 29-7 Kenya
In the final match of the first session on day one, New Zealand began their quest for a first Olympic sevens gold medal with a comfortable victory.
Tries from Stacey Fluhler, Michaela Blyde and Portia Woodman sent New Zealand racing into a 17-0 lead before Kenya clawed seven points back on the stroke of half-time
But New Zealand made sure of victory in the second period as the impressive Gayle Broughton set Blyde up for a second score before notching a try of her own.
New Zealand 26-21 Great Britain
Within five minutes of the first whistle, New Zealand were 21-0 down and in a serious hole.
Tries from Helena Rowland, Megan Jones and Jasmine Joyce had given Great Britain a three-score lead but New Zealand refused to be beaten.
Blyde added another brace to the one she scored against Kenya to close the gap to just seven points at the break.
A stern talking to from their captain Hirini at half-time had the desired effect on New Zealand's players, and they were right back in it when Tyla Nathan-Wong scored a sensational solo try midway through the second half.
“She just told us that's not good enough, that's not doing the black jersey proud,” revealed Ruby Tui.
New Zealand still trailed by a couple of points with a minute left on the clock but when Jasmine Joyce was sent to the sin-bin – the only thing she did wrong all tournament – Blyde pounced to secure her hat-trick and the win.
New Zealand 33-0 Russian Olympic Committee (ROC)
After a lightning-delayed kick-off, New Zealand powered to a comfortable victory in the final match of the pool stages.
Converted tries at the start and end of the first half from Tui saw the All Blacks Sevens into a 14-0 half-time lead.
Portia Woodman waltzed over from turnover ball for New Zealand’s third try before Stacey Fluhler pounced twice to open up further daylight between the teams.
Had New Zealand won by one more point, the Russians would have missed out on the quarter-finals on points difference. Instead, the teams were drawn together as pool winners versus one of the best third-placed teams.
New Zealand 36-0 ROC
Faced with the same opposition, New Zealand produced an almost carbon copy performance of the one that brushed the Russians aside earlier in the day.
"It's a strange one," said Tyla Nathan-Wong. "We knew that they would probably have been a little bit disappointed with their first performance, so we knew that they were probably going to come out here really tough and with nothing to lose.
"So, with that mindset, we knew we had to step up and do the basics right, and I think we did."
Theresa Fitzpatrick, Broughton and Blyde – with her sixth try of the tournament – eased New Zealand into a 17-0 half-time lead.
Woodman, now back to her electric best after a couple of injury-hit years, ran in a couple more tries, either side of a Tui touchdown as New Zealand improved their winning margin from the first encounter by three.
New Zealand 22-17 Fiji (AET)
Their place in the semi-finals confirmed, New Zealand faced a Fijiana side that had enjoyed the tournament of their lives in reaching the medal matches.
Sixteen times these sides had met before in international sevens and all 16 had been won by the Black Ferns Sevens. But the formbook counted for nothing on the day as Fijiana pushed the favourites to the wire.
After conceding an early try to Broughton, Fijiana hit back through a Vasiti Solikoviti double to take the lead.
Woodman and Fluhler restored New Zealand’s advantage but Fijiana refused to concede defeat and tournament top try-scorer Reapi Ulunisau took the game into sudden-death extra-time when she raced away to dot down in the corner.
New Zealand gathered possession from the kick-off, kept their composure – and the ball – and eventually Broughton powered over to earn her side a place in the finals.
Gold medal match
New Zealand 26-12 France
From the moment Blyde opened the scoring in the gold medal match with one minute on the clock, there only really looked like one winner.
France did pull five points back to make the scoreline 7-5 when Caroline Drouin capitalised on a mistake by Tui but with the conversion being missed, that was as close as they got
Broughton then produced a stunning finish in the left corner before Stacey Fluhler went over from a tap penalty move in the final minute of the first half to give New Zealand a 19-5 lead at the break.
Anne-Cécile Ciofani scored her seventh try of the tournament to keep a battling France just about in touch. But New Zealand found another gear and Tyla Nathan-Wong crossed the line to ensure there was no late drama like the semi-final.
"I'm just so grateful to be a part of the best team in the world. Man, this team has been through a lot over the last five years and we're bringing home a gold medal. I'm just so proud,” said Hirini, fighting back the tears.
Hirini had all she ever wanted, an Olympic gold medal to take home.