Defending champions New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa and England all secured semi-final places during a thrilling second day of Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 action at AT&T Park in San Francisco on Saturday.
England provided the most dramatic moment of the Championship quarter-finals, needing a piece of utter brilliance from captain Tom Mitchell to beat hosts USA in extra-time.
The scores were locked at 19-19 until Mitchell put up a perfectly-weighted cross-field kick for Phil Burgess to run onto and score the sudden-death winner.
Olympic champions Fiji had earlier put on a masterclass against Argentina with some scintillating tries, while HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2018 champions South Africa powered past Scotland in their quarter-final.
In contrast, New Zealand had to dig deep to remain in the hunt for a third RWC Sevens crown, overturning three yellow cards in the first half and a half-time deficit to overcome France.
The Championship semi-finals will get underway at 23:40 Sunday evening (UAE time) with South Africa facing England before Fiji meet old rivals New Zealand.
BOWL AND CHALLENGE QUARTER-FINALS
The men’s competition on day two began with the Bowl quarter-finals involving the teams that lost in the preliminary round of matches on Friday.
Tonga and Chile set the tone with a 62-point thriller that Los Condores Sevens came out on top of 33-29.
Elsewhere, there were narrower victories for Uganda over Zimbabwe and Uruguay against Papua New Guinea, while Hong Kong were too strong for Jamaica.
In the Challenge competition quarter-finals, Ireland’s Jordan Conroy dazzled with a hat-trick against Kenya and Australia put their round of 16 loss to France firmly behind them, Henry Hutchison’s brace combining with five other try-scorers for a 41-0 win over Russia to set up a meeting with Canada.
Ireland will now encounter familiar rivals Wales early on Sunday night – 22:34 UAE time.
The Championship quarter-finals concluded the men’s action on Saturday in pulsating fashion as every team knew what was at stake.
South Africa turned up the heat from the word go against Scotland with former World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year Werner Kok imposing himself on the encounter early.
The Blitzboks were clinical in every facet and allowed Scotland hardly any ball in hand, racing into a 36-0 lead with braces by Kok and Justin Geduld before a late consolation try for Scotland with the final play.
Fiji then sent a message of intent with their 43-7 quarter-final win over Argentina and highlighted the quality of their skills and unique offloading abilities.
Semi Radradra was instrumental in two of their first-half tries and his first assist put Kalione Nasoko over after just two minutes.
Los Pumas Sevens hit back once after the break, through Franco Sabato, but it was one way traffic as the side going in search of a third Rugby World Cup Sevens title opened their boxes of tricks.
In the third quarter-final, the All Blacks Sevens found themselves 7-0 down after playing the majority of the first half with just six players on the field due to three separate yellow cards.
A more disciplined second half followed and tries for Kurt Baker and Joe Ravouvou were enough to wrestle the match back from France.
The greatest drama on day two was reserved for the hosts and their last-eight opponents England.
The USA started strongly after Martin Iosefo’s offload neatly found Madison Hughes.
The captain’s conversion created an early 7-0 lead before a Dan Norton double gave England a 12-7 advantage at the break.
Ollie Lindsay-Hague scored straight from the second-half restart but Folau Niua and Perry Baker reeled the 1993 champions back in once again.
With nothing separating the two after normal time, the first sudden death extra-time of RWC Sevens 2013 followed with Mitchell providing the coup de grâce for Burgess to score the winner and spark the English celebrations.
Defending champions New Zealand produced a sublime display of attacking rugby to beat first-time finalists France 29-0 on Saturday to become the first nation to win back-to-back Rugby World Cup Sevens titles.
The crowd at AT&T Park in San Francisco were then treated to the Black Ferns Sevens’ spine-tingling haka in celebration of a fifth title in as many sevens events after success at the Commonwealth Games and the final three rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series.
New Zealand, who had ended the hopes of host nation USA in the semi-finals, enjoyed the perfect start when Michaela Blyde raced away for her seventh try of the tournament after some good work by Tyla Nathan-Wong.
Their second try came midway through the first half after they turned defence into attack from deep in their own half with a charging run from captain Sarah Goss and calmness from her team-mates to recycle the ball and create the space for Portia Woodman to run in her sixth try in 2018 and 18th in RWC Sevens history.
Nathan-Wong crossed for a third try to make it 15-0 at half-time and put the Black Ferns Sevens on the verge of repeating their victory in Moscow in 2013.
France were unable to find a way through the resolute New Zealand defence and it was left to Blyde to score two quick-fire tries to put the finishing touch on their 27th consecutive victory and pull clear of USA speedster Naya Tapper in the race for the HSBC Top Try Scorer award.
Goss, one of four players to be part of New Zealand’s two RWC Sevens successes, said: “It doesn’t get any better.
“I’m so grateful to be here and for a performance like that and for Michaela Blyde to stand up like that.
“It’s an amazing day. France are a quality team and for them not to score against us is a proud effort from the ‘sisters’.
“We had one goal and that was to take the trophy back and I can’t wait to go home and show it to the New Zealand public.”
New Zealand captain Goss received the UL Mark of Excellence award before lifting the coveted trophy, while France’s Anne Cecile Ciofani was named the TUDOR Women’s Breakthrough Player of the Tournament accolade after impressing in her first RWC Sevens and scoring the last-gasp winning try against Australia in the semi-finals.
World Series champions Australia bounced back from their last-gasp loss to France in the semi-finals to claim the bronze medal with a 24-14 victory over USA.
Evania Pelite and Cassie Staples gave Australia the perfect start but two tries from Tapper kept the hosts in the hunt to repeat their bronze of Moscow 2013.
Ellia Green, though, also scored twice, one of them collecting a sublime cross-field kick from Charlotte Caslick in diving over the line.
Spain claimed fifth place with a narrow 12-7 win over Ireland, who were already guaranteed their best-ever finish in RWC Sevens history after beating Russia earlier in the day with 2013 runners-up Canada having to settle for seventh after beating the same opponents.
England, meanwhile, won the Challenge competition to claim ninth place overall with a 29-5 defeat of Japan in the final.
France had earlier stunned Olympic champions Australia to reach their first final, Ciofani accelerating around the outside to secure break the deadlock with the final play and secure a 19-12 victory.
The French men had stunned Australia in the round of 16 on Friday and the women completed the double, although they had to do it the hard way having trailed 12-0 after Pelite scored off a textbook show-and-go and Green exploited the extra space in Les Bleus’ defence with Marjorie Mayans in the sin-bin.
Les Bleus upped their physical intensity and tidied up their set-piece play in the second half and were rewarded when Chloe Pelle got them on the scoreboard.
As France grew in confidence with every minute in what was their fourth successive semi-final on the global stage, Australia’s flow was disrupted by a head injury assessment for Green and a knee injury to Alicia Quirk.
France seized their chance, captain Fanny Horta diving over by the posts to give Montserrat Amedee a straightforward conversion to tie the scores at 12-12 with a minute to play.
Extra-time seemed on the cards for the first time at AT&T Park until Ciofani became France’s hero of the hour to end Australia’s hopes of a second RWC Sevens crown after winning the inaugural women’s event in 2009.
The second semi-final was just as dramatic and had fans on the edge of their seats throughout as New Zealand were pushed all the way by hosts USA, the difference between the sides ultimately being the clinical finish of the defending champions.
Blyde opened the scoring for the Black Ferns Sevens but USA hit back, delighting the home crowd with a brace from Tapper, both tries impressively converted from the touchline by captain Nicole Heavirland, to lead 14-7.
Tries either side of half-time through Ruby Tui and Gayle Broughton, the latter bursting through the defence to run in from deep in her own half, put the Black Ferns ahead again and their big-match experience ultimately told, Goss creating an opportunity for Woodman to score a fourth try.
USA had the final say with Lauren Doyle put through under the posts with time up on the clock, but it was New Zealand celebrating a third successive final appearance on the RWC Sevens stage.
The teams battled for ninth to 16th places had already provided plenty of drama before the Championship semi-finals with Japan captain Chiharu Nakamura scoring with time up to snatch a 15-14 victory over Fiji and set up a Challenge final showdown with England, the more comfortable 38-0 winners over China.
The final saw England start promisingly with Holly Aitchison scoring in the corner before captain Abbie Brown drove through the middle to create a 12-0 lead.
Yume Hirano reduced Japan’s deficit before the interval only for England to dominate the second half, scoring 19 unanswered points and ensured that they finished their time in San Francisco with silverware.
In the other placing matches, Fiji proved too strong for China with Raijieli Daveua scoring twice in a 38-0 win for 11th place, while Beatriz Futuro Muhlbauer bowed out after 14 years in the national team and three RWC Sevens on a winning note after Brazil’s 22-0 defeat of South Africa for 13th.
There was also cause for Papua New Guinea to celebrate after two tries from Gemma Schnaubelt saw them power past Mexico 32-0 to record their first ever RWC Sevens victory.
World Rugby chiefs have warned that Sam Warburton‘s premature retirement from the sport is a “red flag” and say that players may need to adjust gruelling training regimes to protect their careers in future.
Former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Warburton stunned rugby this week after hanging up his boots at the age of 29, citing an inability to recover from a litany of injuries that have blighted his career.
World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot said Warburton’s retirement was a warning in an era when professional rugby has become increasingly demanding for elite athletes.
“The red flags are there – Sam is one red flag – there was a tweet I saw about the number of injuries he has had and it was frightening,” Pichot told reporters in San Francisco at the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
“He had an outstanding career, but a number of injuries. We have to take care of the future generations.”
Pichot said World Rugby was in discussions with the International Rugby Players Association about setting guidelines which would limit the workloads of top-level players.
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper indicating there could be tweaks on the way for TMO protocols - telling me it's "Constantly a work in progress" and there's always "room for improvement". Says it's been a key part of the Executive World Rugby Council meetings this week in San Fran— Adam Cooper (@adamcoopnz) July 20, 2018
The former Argentina captain acknowledged, however, that achieving uniform rules would be complicated given the often conflicting demands on players of clubs and country.
“We are working towards a training-load system,” Pichot said. “We have to learn how to integrate not only the unions but the clubs – don’t forget that.
“You can tell a union that players should only train 10 hours a week – say – but maybe the coaches at the clubs train them more.
“The coaches and owners will want them to play every single week because they want to win to make money. It has to be addressed.
“First of all is the safety of the players. The players want to earn more money, so have to train more and play more.”
Players also needed to negotiate safeguards into their contracts, Pichot said.
“We talked about it with the players last year – we said ‘We want to take care of you, but let’s be honest, when you sign a contract sometimes you don’t protect yourself, and want to play week-in week-out’. There is a balance to be made.”
Good to see Pichot, @WorldRugby acknowledge the problem. But how do you stop players getting stronger and, for all the talk of changing tackle heights/reducing substitutions is, as @mdmaylwin has observed, the end of this that rugby ceases to be rugby? No one easy answer.— Julian Guyer (@stGuyer) July 21, 2018
World Rugby meanwhile has recently moved to address the issue of head injuries caused during tackles.
Current laws allow for tackles to be made at shoulder height, but World rugby has trialled a new law which lowers the level of legal tackles to nipple height.
“There is a crucial thing coming, and a debate about where we are going with the physicality of the game and high tackles,” Pichot said.
“When we played the game – when you had a knock on the head it was seen as brave to carry on playing. We can’t do that any more, the game has changed.”
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said no changes to the tackle law would be made before the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, but hinted high tackles could be scrutinised more rigorously via the Television Match Official (TMO) system.
“There will be no law changes before the World Cup now, but there might be directive or protocol changes, for example regarding the use of the TMO,” Gosper said.