- Fiji miss out on Series Cup quarter-finals for only the second time in Dubai
- Blitzboks extend record winning streak to 21 matches
- Australia’s women on course for back-to-back titles
- Title rivals Fijiana, France and Russia are also unbeaten
After last weekend’s tournament was played behind closed doors, fans were welcomed back into The Sevens Stadium and they were royally entertained on day one in Dubai on Friday.
And as the stands steadily filled up throughout the day with people donned from head to toe in all manner of fancy dress, the point that past glories count for nothing in the wonderfully unpredictable game of rugby sevens was soon hammered home.
Shock defeats to France and Spain meant that for only the second time in HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series history in Dubai – 2019 was the other occasion – double Olympic men’s champions Fiji failed to make it through to a Cup quarter-final.
Argentina were beaten by Fiji in their final game but they were already assured of top spot in Pool C by then, and ultimately a quarter-final tie against Great Britain. France’s reward for finishing as pool runners-up is a last-eight date with USA, who finished second in Pool B behind peerless Australia.
Reigning Dubai champions South Africa were the only other men’s team to beat everyone in front of them as they extended their record Series-winning run to 21 matches. Kenya, their opponents in the Vancouver final of the 2021 Series, stand in the way of the Blitzboks and a place in the semi-finals.
If they go all the way, South Africa would be the first team in almost two decades to win a hat-trick of titles in Dubai.
“The thing with us being at the top, everyone wants to come at us but as a system, we stuck together and pulled it through,” said JC Pretorius, who put in another warrior-like shift.
“We love Dubai, it has the same weather as South Africa.”
While South Africa are still on course to defend the men’s title, Australia’s women are also showing no signs of any let-up, after building on last week’s title win – their first in three years – with a clean sweep of victories.
Australia are the only team competing at the women’s event to have won a Cup final in Dubai, with four titles from six finals played, and confidence will be riding high that they can add to that list with another gold medal after another dominant day in the desert.
Fijiana, France and Russia also take unbeaten records into day two when the pool stage will be played to a finish before the competition enters the knockout phase.
POOL A – GOLDEN BROWN
Top spot rested on the outcome of the final fixture – a rematch of the Edmonton final from the 2021 Series between South Africa and a Great Britain side playing in their final tournament before the English, Scots and Welsh go their separate ways.
South Africa had got to that stage with wins against Japan (48-0) – when no less than eight different players helped themselves to tries – and Ireland (21-12) that, on paper, looked closer than it actually was, with the Irish scoring a consolation try deep into added time.
Meanwhile, Max McFarland scored doubles for Great Britain in what were two contrasting wins. With Jordan Conroy marking his return to the World Series with a brace of tries, Ireland found themselves in front, but McFarland crossed not once but twice to break their hearts. Japan presented no such problems in Great Britain’s second outing, the Asian side conceding six tries in a 36-14 defeat.
Both the Blitzboks and Great Britain were already guaranteed a place in the Cup quarter-finals when they met in a high quality match that was ultimately decided by the ever-dangerous Ronald Brown, who exploited the space created by Morgan Williams’ sin-binning with an arcing run to the line on the 12-minute mark. Brown’s try came after first-half efforts from Zain Davids and Shilton van Wyk.
Alex Davis had given Great Britain hope with a try on the stroke of half-time but the Blitzboks were in no mood to slip up and stifled any opposition attacks with their suffocating defence.
In the previous encounter, Ireland closed out their opening day with a convincing 41-0 victory over Japan in which Terry Kennedy, the top try-scorer in round one, and Jordan Conroy bagged two tries apiece. The margin of victory saw them go through to the Cup quarter-finals as the best third-placed side.
POOL B – BAKER HAS OPPOSITION ON TOAST
The seminal moment in Pool B came when Perry Baker scorched clear of the defensive cover with the clock well into the red to seal a 24-21 comeback win for USA against Kenya.
That set up what was effectively a play-off with Australia for top spot in the pool as both teams had won their opening games, USA seeing off North American rivals Canada 38-14 in their first outing, while Australia had come out on the right side of one-score games against the same opponents, beating Kenya 21-14 and Canada 24-17.
Tries from Solomone Vosaicake, Yool Yool and Corey Toole to one from Stephen Tomasin in reply saw Australia into a healthy 17-7 half-time lead.
USA’s reputation as comeback kings looked like ringing true when Baker went over for the first of his two tries at the start of the second half, but Josh Turner’s score gave Australia a big enough cushion. The game ended with Baker crossing again and a red card to Billy Meakes for a dangerous tip-tackle.
Kenya’s one win, 26-14 against Canada, was enough for them to book their place in the quarter-finals as eighth seeds.
POOL C – YOUNG FIJI LEARN TOUGH LESSONS
With the Olympic gold and bronze medallists, Fiji and Argentina, and two highly-respected European core teams France and Spain involved, Pool C always promised to be hugely competitive, and so it proved.
No one could have predicted though that double Olympic champions Fiji would lose their first two games and miss out on the Cup quarter-finals, even if 10 of their 13-man squad had never played on the World Series before the Dubai fortnight.
Having lost to France for only the second time in World Series history, the Pacific Islanders were then on the wrong side of another upset as Spain scored an historic victory. Los Leones had never beaten Fiji at this level before but were worthy 33-19 winners thanks to braces from Manu Moreno and the rangy Tobias Sainz-Trapaga.
Sainz-Trapaga doubled up against France but Les Bleus Sevens turned in an impressive display of fast and dynamic rugby to win 33-14. Jordan Sepho and Nelson Epee were unstoppable on the edge and on the evidence of this display, an exciting new era beckons for French rugby in not only 15s but also sevens.
It was also a special day for one of their more senior players as Jonathan Laugel, 28, became France’s most-capped sevens player by appearing in his 71st tournament.
By beating Spain, France became the first team to book their place in the quarter-finals but Argentina were already assured of top spot by then, on the head-to-head ruling. Los Pumas Sevens kicked off the day with a 21-14 win over Spain before seeing off France by an identical scoreline.
Typical of a proud rugby nation, a youthful Fiji managed to galvanise themselves and show their true colours against Argentina – even though they were playing in a changed strip of blue and black – to finish the day on a high.
Kaminieli Rasaku set up two and scored another in a sizzling first-half performance that brought them 26 unanswered points. Waisea Nacuqu completed his hat-trick after the break in a 40-7 victory that meant Fiji avoided the ignominy of losing all three pool matches in a World Series event for the first time.
FIJIANA AND AUSTRALIA LEAD THE WAY IN WOMEN’S EVENT
Fijiana are in good shape as they look to go one better than last weekend in Dubai, a clean sweep of wins putting them top of Pool B.
After winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics and silver here in Dubai a week ago, gold would be the natural progression for a side on the up.
But it took a late Ana Roqica try for Fiji to keep their forward momentum going, her five-pointer giving the Pacific Islanders a hard-earned 24-19 victory in their first game of the tournament.
A late Sesenieli Donu double did for USA in game two, as Fiji again found the hard way to win, and the same was true against Great Britain.
Fiji came out of the blocks well with World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year nominee, Alowesi Nakoci, scoring twice, but by full-time, there were only two points in it, the Pacific Islanders holding on to win 17-15.
By contrast, last weekend’s Dubai champions Australia waltzed through the day unbeaten, scoring big wins without conceding any points against Spain (40-0) and Canada (52-0) before Brazil felt the full force of their might in losing 35-7, although they did become the first side to register any points against the early pacesetters.
“We’ve really been focusing on our defence and our one-on-one tackling,” said try-scorer Lily Dick. “We know our attack is brilliant, and hopefully, we can match that with our defence.”
Russia finished fourth in Dubai last week, their best result in the opening event of a season since winning bronze in the same venue on the 2018 Series, and they built on that success by winning both of their opening games to be one of four sides with a 100 per cent record at the end of day one.
France are the other team to have an unblemished record. World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year nominee, Anne-Cécile Ciofani, scored in each of their victories: 33-12 against Great Britain and 29-0 against Ireland.
The best moment of the day, however, belonged to US Women’s Sevens Eagles star, Naya Tapper. Normally known for her lung-bursting, long-striding runs with ball in hand, against Ireland she also showed her grit and determination in defence, cutting down Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, and then holding her up over the try line, despite giving her opponent at least a five-metre head-start.
Tapper also scored one of USA’s three tries as they put the 21-12 defeat to Fiji behind them to win 19-12.
In defeating Canada 12-10 in the penultimate game of the day, Spain ended an eight-game losing streak on the women’s Series that dated back to Sydney 2020.
DAY TWO PREVIEW
There have been only two teams to win the Cup title in Dubai without topping their pool, a feat Great Britain, Ireland, USA, Kenya and France will be looking to achieve when play resumes in Dubai on Saturday. New Zealand won the Cup final in 2002 despite finishing second in their pool behind Samoa, while England repeated this effort in 2010 after finishing second to Fiji.
The men’s Cup quarter-finals begin with a match between Pool B winners Australia and the best third-place side Ireland, at 09:44 local time (GMT+4). Australia may have enjoyed a perfect day on Friday but with Jordan Conroy firing on all cylinders for the men in green after sitting out round one, this is anything but a foregone conclusion.
Next up, at 10:06, it is the turn of Pool C winners Argentina and Pool A runners-up Great Britain to go head-to-head.
This will be followed by a meeting between the two second-place sides in Pools B and C, USA and France, at 10:28, while the Cup quarter-finals come to a conclusion around half an hour later, at 10:50, when South Africa meet eighth seeds Kenya.
The race for the semi-finals in the women’s competition begins at 09:00 local time (GMT+4) with Brazil up against Spain in a match that neither team can realistically afford to lose, especially the South Americans who prop up Pool A.
France are the first of the unbeaten sides in action, four games into day two, when they take on USA at 09:22, while Fiji make their entry a few hours later, in the must-watch encounter against Les Bleues Sevens at 12:29.
Australia’s winning run will be put to the test by a buoyant Russian side in the final match of pool play at 13:13.
The women’s bronze final takes place at 18:07 with the final following on at 18:56.