Twelve months ago France reached their first-ever Cup final on the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series and on Saturday they created another piece of history at the HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens with a maiden victory over New Zealand at the 22nd attempt.
France had pushed New Zealand close before but they were truly inspired in this Pool A decider and very clinical, scoring on all five of their visits to the Black Ferns Sevens’ 22. Anne-Cécile Cofani scored two of these tries with the defending champions unable to get out of their own half for long periods of the match due to the French pressure.
Les Bleues’ reward for ending New Zealand’s 38-match unbeaten run on the series – and 50 matches in the pool stages dating back to 2016 – is a Cup quarter-final against Ireland, while the Black Ferns Sevens face Pool C winners USA after the Women’s Sevens Eagles also won all three matches on day one.
Canada will face Russia in the opening Cup quarter-final at 10:30 local time (GMT+9) on Sunday after they edged Australia 17-14 in the Pool B decider thanks to Kaili Lukan’s unusual winning try. The other quarter-final pits Australia against England, the Pool C runners-up.
France captain Fanny Horta was obviously delighted with the historic win, but she knows that the job isn’t finished yet as they seek a first Cup title on the series.
“It’s a new path we cross. We’ve fallen to Australia a lot as well as to Canada, and New Zealand was, until now, a team we couldn’t beat,” Horta said. “So, it’s a great boost for us and it shows the hard work pays off. We need to continue and not think that this win is an achievement. It’s just a path and we have a long way to go.”
In the Challenge Trophy semi-finals, Spain will face China before hosts Japan tackle Fiji.
Earlier in the day at the Mikuni World Stadium, New Zealand had beaten Japan 43-0 in their opening match to equal their own record of 37 consecutive victories on the series that was set between April 2014 and May 2015.
A 17-17 draw with Russia in their next outing – their first since stalemates with Russia and Canada in the inaugural series event in Dubai back in November 2012 – had ended that winning run before France handed New Zealand their first series defeat since Australia beat them in the Sydney Cup final in January 2018. This meant the Black Ferns Sevens failed to top their pool for the first time since Atlanta in 2016.
Russia gifted France the opening try for Ciofani and the 2018 Kitakyushu runners-up doubled their lead through Coralie Bertrand, only for Russia to hit back with two quick-fire tries late in the first half through Elena Zdrokova and Baizat Khamidova for a 14-10 scoreline. A strong finish to the second half, though, saw France power through to a 33-10 victory with tries from Bertrand, Nassira Konde and Okemba. Before the final match of the first round, New Zealand and Japan came together in a huddle in the centre of the pitch in a fitting tribute to remember the victims of the recent Christchurch tragedy. New Zealand would go on to record their 37th consecutive victory with a clinical display against the Sakura Sevens, teenage debutant Dhys Falaefaga and Stacey Waaka scoring first-half doubles in a 43-0 victory.
In the second round an error-strewn first half between New Zealand and Russia looked to be heading for a scoreless conclusion until Anna Baranchuk and Shakira Baker traded tries to make it 5-5 at the break. Khamidova broke away to give Russia the lead again only for Alena Saili to level the scores again midway through the second half. It looked like Russia had got the winning try through Zdrokova but the Black Ferns had the final say, Ruby Tui sending Tyla Nathan-Wong over under the posts with her conversion securing a 17-17 draw. Ciofani then scored twice to give Les Bleues’ a 21-7 lead over Japan at half-time, but they found it hard to shake off the Sakura Sevens after the break, the hosts giving the home crowd something to cheer about with tries by Honoka Tsutsumi and Yuki Ito. France’s nerves, though, were eased when Okemba went over late on to secure the 31-19 win.
Okemba and Ciofani then gave Les Bleues a surprise 14-0 half-time lead with the Black Ferns Sevens having barely been able to get out of their own half. Ciofani had her second – and fifth of the day – within a minute of the restart before Chey Robins-Reti finally got New Zealand on the board. It proved to be on a temporary respite, though, as Shannon Izar and Chloé Pelle touched down to ensure the French celebrations could begin with a first win over the Black Ferns Sevens, the side that had beaten them in the Kitakyushu and Rugby World Cup Sevens finals in 2018. Russia needed a massive points swing in the final game of the day to pip New Zealand to second place in the pool, but in the end they were relieved to just beat Japan 28-21 courtesy of Zdrokova’s late try. Japan had led 14-7 at half-time and then 21-14 after Rinka Matsuda’s second of the game, but Kristina Seredina and Zdrokova ensured Russia progressed to the Cup quarter-finals as the best of the third-placed teams.
Canada finished 11th in Kitakyushu a year ago and they had to dig deep to beat Spain 26-17 in their opening game, needing late tries from Brittany Benn and Bianca Farella to avoid a first series loss to Spain in five years. Teenager Lide Erbina’s second try of the game had given Las Leonas a 17-14 lead midway through the second half but the restart went out on the full and Canada seized their opportunity to hit back. Australia, level on points with Canada in the standings, enjoyed a far more comfortable opener with a display of power and slick handling against China, Emma Tonegato scoring a hat-trick in a 47-0 victory.
Canada had looked to be coasting to victory after Karen Paquin and Youth Olympic Games 2018 bronze medallist Keyara Wardley helped them into a 21-0 lead, but China – coached for the first time by former New Zealand coach Sean Horan – hit back with two converted tries by Chen Keyi to trail by only seven at the break. A Farella brace, though, wrapped up a 42-19 win for the 2017 Kitakyushu runners-up. Australia then set up the expected pool decider with another strong display against Spain, avenging their loss in the pool stages a year ago. Ellia Green scored her 99th try in the 36-5 victory with Charlotte Caslick (2) and Evania Pelite among the other scorers for Australia. Maria Losada’s try was nothing more than a consolation, but it was the first points Spain had scored against Australia in four matches.
Spain knew they needed a sizable margin of victory over China in their final match if they were to have a chance of making the Cup quarter-finals. They scored five tries but the 31-26 victory ultimately wasn’t enough. China’s Chen Keyi scored probably the pick of the tries in the match, running onto her own kick through to tie the scores at 19-19 before Spain scored two quick tries while their opponents had a player in the sin-bin. Canada then raced into a 10-0 lead against Australia with Farella and Paquin touching down, but a quick tap penalty by Emma Sykes saw her cut the deficit to three points at the break. Sykes then darted through a gap to give Australia the lead but Canada responded in unusual fashion, a kick through being gathered near her own line by Tonegato but when she reached back to place the ball there was no support and instead Kaili Lukan reached over, picked up the ball and grounded what turned out to be the winning try.
Ireland, growing in confidence after a first-ever Cup semi-final appearance in Sydney, started brightly against Fiji with Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe helping herself to two first-half tries around scores by Eve Higgins and Vasiti Solikoviti for a 19-5 half-time lead. Ana Maria Naimasi cut the deficit but Hannah Tyrrell and Murphy Crowe’s hat-trick score wrapped up the 31-10 victory. USA were equally impressive, ending a three-match losing streak against England with six unanswered tries – including two each from Naya Tapper and Alev Kelter – turning a 7-5 deficit into an emphatic 43-7 victory.
England bounced back well from that loss to upset Ireland in the first meeting of the sides since round one in Dubai, never looking back after Alex Matthews opened the scoring. Ireland simply had no answer in the contact area with Celia Quansah and Holly Aitchison among England’s try-scorers in the 31-0 victory. The Women’s Sevens Eagles then came through a physical encounter with Fiji 31-5, Kris Thomas, Kelter, Joanne Fa’avesi, Ilona Maher and co-captain Nicole Heavirland all dotting down.
England and Fiji then played out a match that went back and forth until midway through the second half when try-scorer Asinate Savu was yellow carded. The player advantage was capitalised on by England with Aitchison converting her own try before Quansah scored late on to seal the 35-15 victory. Ireland knew they needed to beat USA to give themselves a better chance of reaching their first Cup quarter-final in Kitakyushu and they started well with Murphy Crowe racing away, but Kayla Canett-Oca went over in the corner to cut the deficit to two points at half-time. Emily Lane increased Ireland’s lead within 35 seconds of the restart, but Kristi Kirshe’s try left the match in the balance until Kelter scored the winner to see USA top their pool for the first time since Las Vegas in 2017.