They won five of six tournaments on their way to a dominant fifth-straight title last season, but New Zealand had to be content with fifth place in Dubai as their HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series season got off to a shaky start in the UAE.
The worst finish for Allan Bunting’s side last season was third in Sydney, but the Black Ferns endured a quarter-final exit yesterday, beaten after the hooter 14-12 by the USA, who had also defeated them in the semi-finals Down Under in February to ruin their perfect season.
And it was Richie Walker’s women who again scuppered their path to glory yesterday, Kelsi Stockert touching down following a New Zealand mistake at the death and Leyla Alev Kelter’s nerveless conversion earning a two point victory.
That was in stark contrast to the 45-14 hammering handed out to them by the same opponents less than 24 hours earlier in the pool stages.
Black Ferns skipper Sarah Goss insisted her side hadn’t underestimated the US following that handsome victory on Thursday, and said defeat would make them “look deeper” into what went wrong and how to improve in time for Sydney, the second leg of the new campaign, in January.
“We obviously had the ball and gave it away and they scored after the hooter, so there were a few key moments,” said Goss when asked what went wrong.
“But it’s alright, I’m still proud of the effort of the girls. I know they’ve worked hard and I know we’ll come back bigger and stronger from that.
“We definitely didn’t think we were going to have it easy. We’ve had some tough matches against them (the US) before and it’s a quarter-final in Dubai so we know they were going to throw everything at us.
“Like I said there were a few key moments where we let ourselves down and they scored at the end to win the game.
“In the other five games we put a lot of points on teams and we had to defend a lot against the US. Potentially that let us down, trying to keep hold of possession. If you don’t have the ball you can’t score tries and it showed as we didn’t win that game.”
They certainly didn’t lack any attacking prowess in Dubai, the Ferns also scoring 40 in a 40-0 demolition of South Africa on Thursday.
They beat France 28-7 and then whitewashed David Courteix’s side in the fifth-placed final yesterday – New Zealand suffering the ignominy of being shunted outside the main stadium onto Pitch 2 for their last two games of the weekend (they trounced Spain 43-0 in the fifth place semi-final).
Portia Woodman crossed for a hat-trick in a 24-0 victory, Michaela Blyde dotting down for the other try against France.
“We’re obviously a bit disappointed with that quarter-final. We came back to win the last two games so that was really pleasing for us,” added Goss, who will now head home to enjoy the Christmas holidays before getting back to action early in the new year.
“The girls have worked really hard and now we can go home and enjoy some time with family and friends before Sydney.
“It’s difficult to gauge where you and opponents are in the first tournament of the new season. That loss makes us look a little deeper into why it happened so we’ll be doing a big review.
“But it’s Christmas when we get home so we’ll definitely be enjoying that with our families before restarting for a big year next year.”
Defending Dubai and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions South Africa chalked up three wins on the opening day of the new season, but Neil Powell and Werner Kok were far from happy with the beginning to their two trophy defences.
The two-time series champions laboured to a 19-10 victory in their Pool A opener against invitational side Uganda, before stepping up the pace as they conceded just five more points in their remaining two games – claiming a 46-5 victory against Kenya and beating Canada 28-0.
Despite not being satisfied with their start and claiming his side must “start all over again” today, coach Powell was delighted with the character his side showed.
“It’s a sign of a good team when they play badly and can still win,” said the 39-year- old, himself a former Blitzbokke player.
“It’s going to be tough tomorrow and one the guys need to be up for it.
“I was happy after the last game. We had a slow start against Uganda, very disappointed with that performance. Because the guys haven’t played together as maybe the 12 we have, there was a little bit of rustiness. But they stepped up the next two games.”
Powell had said there was no pressure on his side coming into the tournament, despite a dominant 2016/17 in which they won five of the eight tournaments, and finished second in the remaining three.
It is a huge year for sevens rugby, with the Rugby World Cup Sevens taking place in America next summer and the Commonwealth Games – another title the South Africans will be defending – in Australia in April.
Powell admitted it is always difficult to gauge how your own team and opponents will perform in the opening leg, so he was pleased to emerge from day one unscathed.
“It is difficult. You’ll never know until you get here,” he added.
“You might play some games back in South Africa but it’s not the quality of the teams here. These guys challenge you a bit more. We pride ourselves on defence and I think that was very disappointing against Uganda. But the guys showed character to come back.”
His words were echoed by Werner Kok, the Western Province winger who was part of that 2014 Commonwealth Games success, as well as being in the side that won bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“It could have been better,” he said bluntly of the opening day.
“We still made a lot of mistakes, lots of opportunities we didn’t take and I think we’ll go home, look at the videos and see where we can get better.”
He did add that it was a good sign they played badly yet still opened up the season with three straight wins.
“It’s definitely good, as it doesn’t allow us to get complacent. The bad start against Uganda was actually a good thing. To put us back into basics and we realised it’s not going to happen by itself. The boys pulled together and we had two other good games.”
Australia took full advantage of a blip for defending HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series champions New Zealand to stage an early bid for a second crown by breezing to victory in Dubai.
Tim Walsh’s team saved the best for last at The Sevens Stadium Friday, whitewashing Canada, who finished third last season, 34-0 in the final.
The stadium was engulfed by a barrage of noise from an impressive fireworks display following victory as smoke billowed throughout the stands.
When it cleared, the Aussies were still standing, resplendent in their gold and green kit – and they will feel they the chances of regaining the title all-conquering New Zealand took off them in 2016/17 are bright after a vivid display.
They opened up with a 27-0 victory over Japan on Thursday, followed by 22-7 and 31-12 wins against England and Russia to top Pool B.
They beat England (29-12) again in the quarter-finals and Canada (25-7) in the last four yesterday, before dazzling in the final, with Evania Pelite grabbing a score on her way to the player of the tournament award.
Dominique Du Toit added a brace, while Sharni Williams, Emma Tonegato and Emilee Cherry topped the cake.
For 22-year- old star Pelite, victory in the Emirates was reward for all the hard work endured over the summer and in pre-season.
“It’s really great to come out here and get the first win of the series. We went away and worked really hard in pre-season so to come out and perform like that is a huge credit to us,” said the Brisbane native.
“We came out and wanted to focus on us. We came with a game-plan and we wanted to execute it and that’s what we did.”
Next up for the Aussies is their home tournament on the Gold Coast at the end of January.
And having suffered defeat at the hands of Canada in the Sydney semi-finals a year ago and beaten in the bronze medal match by New
Zealand, Pelite insists she and her colleagues will be fired up to perform on home soil, where a second victory would really enhance their chances of series success in a five-tournament season.
“It didn’t go as well as we wanted it to last season but we’re looking forward to going back home, putting the hard work in and hopefully do a repeat of tonight,” added Pelite, who won sevens gold with the green and gold last year in Rio.
“The girls definitely have the fire in their bellies at the moment. You can tell with the atmosphere in the changing room, the team camaraderie, it’s all gelling well.”
The Black Ferns, meanwhile, never finished below third last season, in fact bronze in Sydney was the only tournament in which they did not lift the main award as they celebrated five victories.
But a 14-12 to the USA in the last eight yesterday knocked them out of the running for the main title, Allan Bunting’s side eventually going on to finish fifth.
Australia coach Walsh admitted he was surprised by their exit and contemplated the fact they had not respected the tournament as much as they should have.
“I was surprised,” he said.
“They’ve been in incredible form. But the US are always physical. New Zealand, looking at it, lost it themselves. They had a few kicks
yesterday that went awry and then kicked away the ball a few times against the US, didn’t respect the ball and they (the US) took full advantage.”
Walsh labelled his own team’s performance “exceptional”.
“I thought the semi-final really put us in good stead and they really performed well there,” he added.
“Executed exactly what we were trying to do. Scoring that amount of points and the way we did it, we’re happy with how the tournament
went, it was a pretty exceptional performance, particularly Evania, I thought she was world-class.
“It gives the girls faith in what we’re doing. Such a long pre-season and hard work, to see it unfold instils belief in the programme.
“You need to get off to a good start because with five (tournaments this year) the season’s over before you know it. Every tournament, every game, really counts