Hamilton Sevens: Aussies claim Bronze as Flying Fijians shine

Photo – Mike Lee – KLC fotos for World Rugby

The Aussie Men’s Sevens team have fallen agonisingly short of matching last week’s Sydney success, finishing in a gallant 3rd place at the inaugural Hamilton Sevens in New Zealand.

A terrific Quarter-Final showing against Kenya offered hope of back-to-back titles but a ruthless South Africa avenged last week’s Cup Final loss to down the men in gold 24-5 in the semis, before the Blitz Bokke were run down in style in the decider by a Fijian side who claimed their first world series title since Hong Kong in April of last year.

That semi-final defeat left Australia with a 3rd/4th place play-off against New Zealand, who themselves had been stunned in the last four by the Flying Fijians. And the hosts weren’t able to turn around the loss the previous week to their great rivals, James Stannard slotting a penalty after the siren to claim a gutsy 8-7 win in the penultimate game of the day, and the consolation prize of a bronze medal in the process.

The day had started in fine style, the Aussies racking up five first-half tries as they totally outplayed Kenya in all facets of the game. Patience, decision-making and execution were all in tune as Lachie Anderson (2), Tom Lucas, John Porch and Ben O’Donnell went over in quick succession to leave the second half a formality at 33-0. The only disappointment was a failure to add to their tally after the break; the concession of two tries to Kenya; and the ankle injury sustained by impact playmaker Maurice Longbottom that ruled him out of the rest of the competition.

It was always unlikely that South Africa would leave themselves as open as they did in Sydney last week when they lost the Cup Final 29-0. Missed tackles cost them dearly that day but the reigning champions regained their starch in defence this time out, were clinical in attack and led the semi-final 10-5 at half-time.

Australia missed a gilt-edged opportunity to edge themselves in front just after the restart when some direct running and tidy offloads opened the door, only for the usually mercurial hands of skipper James Stannard to desert him with the line begging, off what was admittedly a pass around his feet from Lucas.

That profligacy was immediately punished when Blitz Bokke skipper Kyle Brown popped up a superb offload for Cecil Afrika to run 60 metres for what was his second, and despite some courageous efforts from Australia to peg them back, another five-pointer from Lions star Kwagga Smith near the end sealed their fate, and ensured another date with their trans-Tasman rivals.

Ben ODonnell 2_Hamilton Sevens_2017_WR

Ben O’Donnell streaks away against Kenya – Photo: Mike Lee – KLC fotos for World Rugby

No doubt still smarting from their own semi-final loss, the kiwis came out firing with a view to sending the home crowd away with some kind of consolation for missing out on the big one. But it was their opponents who set the tone from the opening whistle, Australia calmly building phases for over two minutes before a turnover near their own line gave the hosts their first shot at possession and territory.

And they took it, the gold defence parting like the Red Sea off a lineout and Scott Curry saying ‘thank you very much’ to run under the posts. It took a terrific last-ditch tackle from Tom Connor to prevent the kiwi skipper from a double shortly after as Australia were suddenly pinned in their own half, but they got a lifeline when Kurt Baker went to the bin for a neck roll, and they were still in the game at 7-0 at the break.

They took full advantage of the extra man straight after the restart, John Porch executing a textbook strip tackle and scooping up the loose pill to run home. However, Stannard’s conversion struck the post and neither side were able to break through for another as the clock ticked down with New Zealand ahead 7-5. Australia got the possession they needed in the final minute and when they were awarded a penalty within range, up stepped skipper Stannard – Australia’s all-time leading points scorer in the shorter format of the game – to slot it through the uprights and bring a hugely successful fortnight for Andy Friend’s fast-improving men to a close.

He was understandably proud of his young charge’s efforts.

“To beat them here (New Zealand) was a big moment for us and I was really, really proud of those boys,” he said. “We talked last week about belief, today we saw that belief again. We’ve probably seen it, smelled it for a while but you’ve got to produce it and this last fortnight has been a really special time for us.

“I think the boys have now got that genuine belief that they can beat any team in the world. We’ve got to keep working, keep fighting, keep working hard and we’ll hopefully get those wins.”

That just left the title showdown between South Africa and Fiji, and it was a game that didn’t fail to meet expectations. The Blitz Bokke’s linespeed and choking defence thwarted the Fijians in the opening stanza, and they took the opportunities that came their way with aplomb to build a threatening 17-5 lead at the break.

But Fiji weren’t finished yet, a superb score down the right flank from Eroni Sau bringing them back into contention, before a yellow card to Branco Du Preez put them in prime position to strike for home. And they did so in the way that only Fiji can, with dazzling offloads, support play and finishing power that had their fervent supporters and any neutrals screaming with joy as they ran in two more unanswered tries to win 24-17.

Further down the pecking order, Samoa claimed a worthy 5th place finish with a play-off win over Kenya; the USA gained some solace for a below-par first day by taking out the Challenge Trophy Final with victory over Argentina, and France claimed the bragging rights in the Shield Final over Wales, triumphing 19-17 in a tight one.

As a result, South Africa have taken over top spot on the series ladder from New Zealand, with Fiji also moving up a couple of spots into 3rd, just in front of Australia. The next round takes place in Las Vegas on the weekend of March 2nd-4th.

2017_18_World Series Sevens Table

The leading eight nations have produced four different winners so far in the 2017/18 series

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