Sydney Sevens Day Two: Last gasp Malouf edges Aussie into Quarters
Photo: J.B Photography
The Australian Men’s Sevens produced the highlight of day two in Sydney, a Nick Malouf try after the bell ensuring victory over reigning World Series champions South Africa, and squeaking the reigning tournament holders into this afternoon’s Cup Quarter-Finals.
Having lost to Argentina in their opening match of the day, the Aussies then put away Tonga in game two to set up a do-or-die clash with the heavyweight Blitz Bokke last night. But winning alone wasn’t enough, in order to maintain their chances of back-to-back titles, they had to do so by six points or more to edge ahead of the Pumas on the pool ladder by points differential.
So as the buzzer sounded for full-time with the hosts holding a three-point lead, they had no other option but to chance their arm and go for broke, Malouf racing 60 metres into the corner to send the Spotless Stadium crowd into raptures. The only caveat to all the excitement, was the prospect of an imperious Fiji awaiting in the Quarter-Final.
“We knew we had to win by six (points) so it was a real moment to embrace and own, and fair play, they (players) came up with the goods,” enthused head coach Tim Walsh. “It was an emotional roller coaster but finally it was a good one.
“The boys put in the effort and they worked hard. We got our opportunity and we took it and we’re into tomorrow now which was the first step. Now we have to repeat the way we played today for three games tomorrow.”
It would all have been so much simpler if they’d taken care of Argentina in game one of course, a match they went into with some confidence off the back of last week’s 17-12 victory over the Pumas in Hamilton. But this Argentine side turned up in much finer fettle, catching the Aussies cold early on when Mateo Carreras profited from a turnover to run home the first five-pointer.
The hosts thought they had levelled when the prolific Henry Hutchison finished off a line break from Maurice Longbottom, only for it to be chalked off for a forward pass. But another burst from Longbottom shortly after had his side at the right end of the field once again, and a well-executed set play saw Simon Kennewell over in the corner.
John Porch’s conversion took the Aussies into a 7-5 half-time lead, but things unravelled after the restart as Argentina put their foot to the floor with three tries in quick succession.
The wonderfully named Lucio Constantino Cinti Luna grabbed the first in the 8th minute, and a poor kick receipt from the Aussies from the restart gifted their opponents the chance to cross again through Luciano Gonzalez.
A yellow card for Lachie Anderson didn’t help the Australian cause, and when that indiscretion was further punished by a drop goal penalty from Pumas playmaker Gaston Revol to make it 22-7, it looked like a long way back for the home side.
Their fate was sealed with a couple of minutes remaining, Argentina pouncing on a lacklustre exit to put Rodrigo Etchart over for 29-7. And despite a consolation score at the end from Longbottom after good work from skipper Lewis Holland and Josh Coward, the damage was done and the Aussies were staring down a long, hard road to redemption.
The first-up loss not only meant that a win over Tonga in game two was a must, but that the manner of victory could be vital later on, especially if South Africa were to beat Argentina in the game to follow (they did). The Blitz Bokke had beaten the Pacific Islanders 45-5 earlier on, and given that Tonga were an invitational side still plugging away for a permanent spot on the World Series, Australia had to treat them as sacrificial lambs.
They weren’t helped by the news before kick-off that the influential Ben O’Donnell would miss the rest of the tournament through injury, but they still got off to the perfect start when an intercept sent Lachie Anderson over after just 15 seconds. And with the Aussies enjoying all the possession, it wasn’t long before they were in again, Lewis Holland racking up his 100th World Series try with a dash to the corner.
A lovely offload from Michael Wells in the tackle then gave Holland the chance to draw his man and put a hot-stepping Henry Hutchison away for number three, before Jesse Parahi showed quick feet and too much power close to the line to open up a 22-0 advantage at the break.
Anderson didn’t waste any time maintaining the rage, sweeping upfield from his own 22 after the restart to run in try number five. And when Tonga were reduced to six men with Tali Finau shown red for a needless head shot on Jeral Skelton as he went to ground, the floodgates looked like they would well and truly open.
The Aussies duly used the extra man from the restart for Holland to get his second to make it 32-0. But great credit has to go to the Tongans, who scrambled, scrapped and spoiled their hearts out in the closing minutes to frustrate their opponents and prevent another five-pointer.
One more try against Tonga would have made the task against South Africa in game three that little bit less daunting. But as it was, they knew they would not only have to defeat the side currently sitting two places above them on the World Series ladder, but with Argentina having just seen off Tonga 34-12, they needed to do so by a clear six points in order to edge the Pumas into third.
They got their challenge off to a promising start when Skelton jinked his way over inside two minutes, and they were in again a minute later, captain Holland leading the way with a damaging run through several Blitz Bokke defenders to find the line.
When Holland then crossed in the corner to make it 17-0 after just four minutes, the Aussies, and the parochial home crowd, were in dreamland. However, they were brought back down to earth right on half-time, the tricky Justin Geduld finding the chalk to give South Africa a lifeline for the second half.
Geduld was at it again after the restart, some dazzling footwork on halfway leaving several gold jerseys in his wake as he strode away for a double. And the reigning World Series champions were back in full throttle when Stedman Gans went over in the 11th minute, giving his side the lead for the first time in the match at 21-17.
The Aussies were now staring down the barrel at a place in the Challenge side of the draw, and the hopes of defending their title hung by a very thin thread. But a yellow card for the influential Geduld gave them a timely boost, and Josh Coward wasted no time in taking advantage, profiting from a strong carry and neat offload from Parahi to stretch his legs for the corner.
Back in front at 24-21, they still needed another score to edge Argentina into the Quarter-Finals. Given the fact that South Africa were still sitting in top spot in the pool at that point despite trailing, a kick into the crowd after the final whistle by the Blitz Bokke would have ended Australia’s chances.
But when the siren sounded they played on, and when they fumbled away possession in search of a needless match-winner, they coughed up the one chance the Aussies needed, Nick Malouf pinning back his ears to race home for glory and send the green and gold army crazy.
However, all that last-gasp drama has earned is a meeting with Fiji. And given the way they are travelling on the World Series right now, enjoying a 21-match winning streak that includes tournament victories in both Cape Town and Hamilton, that is a challenge that will take a herculean effort to conquer.
“Fiji are an amazing attacking team,” confirmed coach Walsh. “They will score tries so it’s how you respect the ball when you hold onto it. Defensively you can shut them down but it’s easier said than done.”
CUP QUARTER-FINAL: AUSTRALIA v FIJI – 12.16pm AEDT on FOX SPORTS
AUSTRALIA 14 ARGENTINA 29
Tries: Simon Kennewell, Maurice Longbottom
Cons: John Porch, Lewis Holland
AUSTRALIA 32 TONGA 0
Tries: Lachie Anderson 2, Lewis Holland 2, Henry Hutchison, Jesse Parahi
Cons: John Porch
AUSTRALIA 29 SOUTH AFRICA 21
Tries: Lewis Holland 2, Jeral Skelton, Josh Coward, Nick Malouf
Cons: John Porch, Josh Coward