New Zealand’s women had not played on the Series for more than 800 days due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, they clicked seamlessly back into gear to reach the Cup final in Canada.
It was not to be a fairytale comeback for the Black Ferns Sevens, though, as Lily Dick’s try with time elapsed in the showpiece match ensured that Australia won their fourth tournament of the 2022 Series.
Australia had won three of the four tournaments heading into the first Series event in Langford since 2019 and their dominance continued over the weekend.
The team’s performance on Vancouver Island was enough to earn them the 2022 Series title regardless of the result against New Zealand in the final, but they celebrated being crowned champions for the first time since 2018 in style.
Michaela Blyde’s late try appeared to have given the Black Ferns Sevens the edge with two minutes to go, however, Australia dug deep and Dick evaded a couple of tired tackles to create enough space to score.
“We have had some momentous battles and there’s always a balance of power going on and after that it might have swung back a little bit (in Australia’s favour),” Australia coach Tim Walsh told AAP.
“In the warm-ups the energy between the sides was amazing; it was like a competition of who was having more fun and then you go out there and go to war.
“Winning and entertaining sort of doubles the emotion, so we’re pretty stoked.”
Walsh added: “A good team will still have half their games coming down to the last play and you don’t want to be flipping a coin over it.
“You want to be able to hold composure, do the basics well and they did that (in the final) and did it in an entertaining way.
“They’re playing without fear; for a coach to get your team into that sort of flow is very rewarding.”
Woodman creates history
Despite losing out on the gold medal to their biggest rivals, there was plenty for the Black Ferns Sevens to celebrate on Vancouver Island.
World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Decade Portia Woodman became the first woman to score 200 tries on the Series when she touched down the first of her two scores in the quarter-final win against Canada on Sunday.
It was a finish befitting the achievement as Woodman beat two defenders with a swift change of direction before burning off a third with pure pace as she sprinted home from well inside her own half.
The #BlackFerns7s players and management perform the team haka in honour of @PortiaWoodman’s incredible history-making milestone of 2️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ World Series tries 🖤#Portia200 #Langford7s pic.twitter.com/TdQK0wCjwm— Black Ferns (@BlackFerns) May 1, 2022
Woodman followed up her momentous score by notching her 201st Series try within three minutes and was later treated to a special Haka by her team-mates when she returned to the New Zealand changing room.
Although she finished the tournament with six tries to her name, she insists it is getting harder to cross the whitewash on the Series.
“Everyone's fast,” she said. “There are no outside tries any more. I'm going to have to work on something else.
“The girls have changed the way they play. The likes of Canada, the likes of Fiji, they're so strong.”
Certainly, if Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe continues on her current form she will close the gap on Woodman at the top of the all-time scorers’ chart.
Murphy Crowe scored 12 tries in Langford to take her 2022 Series tally to 32, eight more than Charlotte Caslick, who is second on the list.
The Irish star still has some way to go to catch Woodman, though. Murphy Crowe has scored 130 Series tries in her career, putting her seventh on the list, 71 behind the New Zealander.
Plenty to play for in Toulouse
Although Australia have wrapped up the 2022 Series title with a tournament to spare, there is still plenty to get excited about as the women’s teams head to Toulouse later this month.
Champions Australia and New Zealand are among the teams who will compete at the Commonwealth Games at Coventry Stadium between 29-31 July.
For others there is the carrot of Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022, which will take place in Cape Town in September, meaning there is an incentive to perform well in the south of France.
After so long away from the Series, Woodman and the Black Ferns Sevens will hope to use Toulouse to fine-tune their play ahead of a busy four months.
“I think [Sunday’s] loss is a good little reminder that we've still got a lot to work on, and we're really excited about that,” Woodman said.
“I like losing in some ways...when we lose we can learn so much more from it. You're not complacent, you're always trying to find ways to be better. You're always fighting to be better.”
Toulouse is the final dual event of the season and there is everything to play for on the men’s Series, with only 11 points separating South Africa in first and Australia in third.
Following their tournament triumph in Vancouver earlier this month Argentina are second, just six points behind the Blitzboks.
With only two events to play for the men after Toulouse, every match will be pivotal between 20-22 May.