Biarritz 7s Day 2: Aussies 5th as US win maiden title, but NZ take series
It was a thrilling end to the World Series in Biarritz as a jubilant USA Women’s team claimed their first ever tournament win with victory over New Zealand in the Cup Final. But the Black Ferns had already done enough to secure yet another Series title, their fifth in the seven years since the Women’s Series began.
An unbeaten opening day had given hope that Australia could finish on a high with a first tournament victory of the season, but things came unstuck in the Cup Quarter-Final against a Spanish side they had handsomely beaten just the day before, as they went down 15-14. However, wins over Russia (31-21) and then France (24-10) earned them a 5th place finish, and accrued enough points to cement fourth place in the overall ladder, and the all-important automatic qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“It’s been a massive effort by the whole squad and staff across the Series to ensure our qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and I really want to congratulate everyone on the role they played to get us here,” said head coach John Manenti.
“Whilst today didn’t go the way we wanted it to, this team has shown real character and grown since we started the Series in America last year. We have blooded some of the next generation of players, and I am really excited about what this group can do, and the potential we have over the coming seasons.
“I was also really impressed with the way our leaders really stood up, both on and off the park, with the standards they set and the battles through adversity and injury they faced. This is just the beginning though. We know how hard the next year will be, and the work we will have to put in to get the results we desire.
“We will be ready for that, and every player and staff member is looking forward to adding to the next chapter in the history of the Aussie Women’s Sevens jersey.”
Having overcome Spain 31-14 less than 24 hours earlier, the Aussies went into their Quarter-Final rematch with the favourites tag very much hanging around their necks. But you have to turn up against every opposition in any format of rugby, particularly in Sevens given the reduced amount of game time, and it was clear from the off that the Spaniards came into the contest with a point to prove.
A rare error from Ellia Green gave them an early leg-up, her dropped ball picked up by Anne Fernández de Corres, who had the pacy Patricia Garcia in support for a run to the line in the 2nd minute. And Australia continued to look off the pace for most of the first half, before they conjured up a much-needed response.
They looked in danger of conceding a second try when Maria Losada hit a lovely inside pass to race to the posts, but Charlotte Caslick was on hand to save the day and force a knock-on. The alert Green spotted an opening, scooping up the loose pill to make amends for her earlier misdemeanour with a length-of-the-field effort, and Sam Treherne’s conversion had the Aussies 7-5 in front at the break.
Things seemed to be swinging their way when they grabbed the next score after the restart, through another piece of individual brilliance from Caslick. Kicking in behind the Spanish defence, she chased hard to get there first and kick again, and got her reward with a kind bounce to help open up a 9pt advantage.
Given the previous day’s result, it would have been no surprise if Spain had fallen away once again. But their resolve had clearly grown overnight, and they hit back straight away, Lide Erbina too hot to handle down the touchline for Tonegato to make it a 4pt ball-game with a few minutes remaining.
And with the bit firmly between their teeth Spain broke through again, Patricia Garcia grubbering ahead, and Paula Requena coming from nowhere to touch down just before Sariah Paki to edge in front 15-14. Australia desperately tried to come up with a late match-winner, but Spain held firm to record a memorable victory, and kick-start some pretty wild celebrations as a result.
Perhaps the hardest thing for a team to do in the quick-fire format of a Sevens weekend is pick themselves up after such a loss, and raise themselves back to the levels required in order to come away with the highest finish still available to them.
And that Australian mettle was tested when their opponent’s in the 5th place semi-final, Russia, crossed the line first, Daria Shestakova darting from a breakdown to switch back inside, and past Alicia Quirk for the chalk. But it was the awakener they needed, Emma Tonegato doing brilliantly to hold onto a low pass from Evania Pelite to go under the posts.
Pelite then turned from provider to finisher, in the right place at the right time to take a wide pass from Sharni Williams and put Australia 12-7 up at half-time. But Russia weren’t going to lay down either, Alena Mikhaltsova striking off a scrum a minute into the second half, and Snezhanna Kulkova adding the extras to give them a 14-12 lead.
In danger of suffering a similar fate to their Quarter Final, the Aussies regrouped and found another gear. They had to stop a score at the other end first, Pelite intercepting a pass from Kulkova that would have led to a certain try. But when the green and gold jerseys swarmed upfield after regaining possession, they shifted it to the right for Ellia Green to do what she does best, stride for home to grab her 25th try of a fantastic individual Series.
That lit the touchpaper for Australia, Tonegato scorching her way around Baizat Khamidova to claim a double, before the ubiquitous Pelite capped off another fine display with her second, running from her own half off a pass from Caslick to send her team 17pts clear. Credit to the Russians, who kept going to the end and grabbed another through Khamidova with seconds remaining. But it was the Aussies who would take on France in the 5th place play-off.
France’s results up to that point meant that Australia were assured of finishing above them in 4th place on the Series ladder, and gaining automatic Olympic qualification, before they’d even begun to thrash out who would finish 5th in Biarritz.
But it is in this talented group’s nature to aspire to the highest peaks on offer, and when Charlotte Caslick punished too much space left on the blindside of a ruck to grab her sixth five-pointer of the weekend in the opening minute, Les Bleus were under no illusions as to their opponent’s levels of focus.
They tried to hit back through the dangerous Camille Grassineau, only for Caslick to front up in defence, and the first five minutes were largely a tale of French possession and Australian resilience. But the dam finally burst when Anne-Cécile Ciofani – who had broken Aussie hearts almost a year earlier with a last-minute match-winner in the World Cup semi-final – found some empty grass to see off Alicia Quirk and find the chalk.
Blows were traded again before the break, veteran Sharni Williams marking her welcome comeback with a try after carving a path through a disjointed French line. But a poor restart was punished when Caroline Drouin released Jade Le Pesq down the wing to leave her side trailing by two at 12-10. Cue Ellia Green.
Having joined the fray shortly in the closing stages of the first half but been successfully marshalled, the ‘Green Machine’ didn’t waste any time making France pay when they afforded her too much space in the 11th minute. Quick hands did the trick, stretching Les Bleus to breaking point and allowing Green to scoop up from a breakdown and bend a run to the line.
And she was at it again a couple of minutes later, profiting from an offload in the tackle from Quirk to see off the challenge of Shannon Izar, and race away to ensure victory, 5th place, and a positive end to the Series.
Elsewhere, last-eight conqueror’s Spain ran out of gas in the Cup semi-finals, downed by a rampant USA team on a mission. And they would meet New Zealand in the title decider, the newly-crowned Series champions having seen off Canada in their semi to reach their fifth final from six tournaments.
But there would be no extra victory lap for the Black Ferns, a determined US team catching them cold with some exhilarating attacking play and choking defence to run out 26-10 winners, and claim their maiden gold medal. Roll on next season!
AUSTRALIA 14 SPAIN 15
Tries: Ellia Green, Charlotte Caslick
Cons: Sam Treherne 2
5th PLACE SEMI-FINAL
AUSTRALIA 31 RUSSIA 21
Tries: Emma Tonegato 2, Evania Pelite 2, Ellia Green
Cons: Sam Treherne 2, Lauren Brown
5th PLACE PLAY_OFF
AUSTRALIA 24 FRANCE 10
Tries: Ellia Green 2, Charlotte Caslick, Sharni Williams
Cons: Sam Treherne, Lauren Brown