On a day of twists and turns at the National Stadium in Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand, USA and Australia were the ones to navigate through to the last eight with unbeaten records.
Away from the quartet, Scotland also recorded a big victory over the champions of Hong Kong, Fiji, and Wales ended England’s 16-game world series winning streak over them.
The two days of action in Singapore mark the eighth round of the ten-stop world series and with the backdrop of Tokyo 2020 qualification at the forefront of minds, excitement was swirling around the stadium.
The potential Olympic Games qualification outcomes will be known fully at the end of the second day of play – should any of the top teams finish with a margin of 43 world series points or more over the fifth-placed side, then they will gain qualification with two rounds to space.
The USA arrived in Singapore on top of the series standings and Mike Friday’s side maintained their form well in order to create a Cup quarter-final meeting with Argentina. After disappointment in Hong Kong, Australia bounced back in style to create a last-eight contest against England. The Blitzboks will meet Samoa while New Zealand and Fiji will face-off. The matches will commence at 11.30am local time (GMT+8) on Sunday.
The Challenge Trophy quarter-finals will be Scotland versus Spain, Wales taking on Hong Kong, Japan meeting Canada and France against Kenya. With the close nature of the positions at the bottom of the world series table, and the 15th team being relegated at the end of the season, every match and every series point becomes vital.
South Africa progressed out of Pool A as the only unbeaten side while Fiji survived a scare against Scotland to make sure of the pool’s other place in the last eight.
Gareth Baber’s side have been the top try-scoring team in four of the seven events this series, scoring a competition-high of 184 tries in total. They started their weekend positively by hitting the 50-point mark against Canada. A 19-7 half-time lead turned into a 50-12 result but they lost Jerry Tuwai to injury in the opening moments. The instrumental playmaker was not able to return for the rest of the day’s play.
Fiji found themselves on the wrong end of a tense encounter with Scotland by 19-12. The physical contest saw them 12-5 down at the interval before clawing it back to 12 points apiece. When Alasio Naduva was sent to the sin-bin for not being ten, Scotland upped their work-rate. It took them until the final play to cross but they did and left Fiji without any time for a response.
South Africa were also embroiled in a close first half with Scotland. The Blitzboks held a narrow 12-10 lead after seven minutes but significantly upped the ante in the second seven. The result was 24 unanswered points, including Angelo Davids scoring his first try on the world series.
In their next match, they again took time to find fifth gear. A 10-0 lead over Canada was created at the very end of the first half, after Ryan Oosthuizen rewarded their perseverance. The pattern of the first match then followed, as the Blitzboks added tries in quick succession and pressed out to record a 36-0 victory.
As Scotland weren’t able to back-up their exceptional work against Fiji, falling to Canada, that meant that Fiji’s points difference took a little pressure off going into the final meeting with South Africa. A low-scoring but intense, first half was eclipsed by a fast-paced second. The Blitzboks led 12-7 with two and a half minutes to play before Werner Kok finished the job on the scoreboard.
Australia, finalists in Singapore last year, came into the competition after not hitting the notes that they wanted to in Hong Kong. They recorded just two victories there, however, seven days on, went purposefully about their early business against Argentina and then France.
When faced with Los Pumas, Tim Walsh’s side formulated a ten-point lead before having to withstand a comeback and then a deficit. At 17-15 down Maurice Longbottom’s phenomenal footwork saved his team and gutsy defence ensured a narrow 22-17 win.
Next, the side stunned in-form France. After two consecutive Cup final appearances, Les Bleus started well with a 26-7 win over Hong Kong and held Australia to 12 points apiece at the interval. But, the second seven minutes belonged to Australia – a quick double via Lachie Miller and Henry Hutchison – gave them the advantage that they required. In contrast, France weren’t wholly accurate in their work. Finally, a seven-try, 47-0 victory over Hong Kong finished Australia’s job in style.
After Les Bleus’ dip against Australia and Argentina’s earlier win and loss, the two faced-off against each other for a place in the Cup quarter-finals. German Schulz and Los Pumas Sevens hit first and they dominated the first half. The hold on the game continued after the pause as France became frustrated at finding themselves 19 points down. Although Les Bleus finished with the final say on the scoreboard, errors and penalties were their undoing. The 19-7 result secured Los Pumas Sevens a meeting with world series leaders, USA, in the last eight and pushed France into the Challenge Trophy competition.
Mike Friday’s USA started their day by avenging the pool loss that they suffered to Wales in Hong Kong. They had to contend with a late personnel change too as Martin Iosefo was ruled out due to injury. Ben Broselle took his place and the outfit scored first. After the break, the USA Eagles Sevens notched up back-to-back tries and a 14-5 advantage turned into 31-12 after 14 minutes. Next, their work against Friday’s former side Kenya was determined. They were pushed all the way but showed significant resilience for a 17-14 victory and Carlin Isles continued his hot try-scoring streak with another brace.
In their first match England, with the importance of series points firmly on their minds, held a purposeful 19-0 lead over Kenya at the pause. The second seven minutes then belonged to their youngsters. First, 19-year-old Femi Sofolarin scored his debut try out wide before another 19-year-old, Jamie Barden then crossed. Kenya found their way over the line in the final moments but it was a match that England dominated.
The final pool clash saw the USA and England duel for the 46th time on the world series. The head-to-heads showed just 12 victories for the USA compared to England’s 30 (three draws), however the USA made this latest match their own. With a minute on the clock, captain Madison Hughes set their tone and they were relentless of their pursuit for victory. A 22-7 cushion was created with three minutes to go and England had to keep their cool because a loss of 26 points or more would have seen them miss out on the Cup quarter-finals. Instead they put in a stellar defensive shift, making over 30 tackles in total, and held the encounter to finish with that scoreline.
It has been 14 years since New Zealand’s last Cup victory in Singapore and they started their 2019 campaign in a focused fashion by overpowering relegation-fighting Japan. Clark Laidlaw’s outfit, who are missing Sione Molia due to a shoulder injury, notched up seven tries in total with Regan Grace and Andrew Knewstubb both delivering braces. The outfit coupled this with solid work in defence to keep Japan scoreless at 43-0 and followed it up by avenging their recent pool loss to Spain in Vancouver with an emphatic 53-0 victory.
Elsewhere in the pool, the in-form Samoa had a competitive first half against Los Leones before they put their foot on the accelerator. Melani Matavao’s excellent chip-and-chase try finished the first half and helped to produced their 21-7 cushion. After, the side never looked back to achieve a 40-14 result. Sir Gordon Tietjens’ outfit also proved to be too strong for Japan, 57-7, and that set up an enticing duel for pool supremacy against the All Blacks Sevens.
New Zealand hadn’t conceded a try before Matavao ripped up the park in the opening moments. The 23-year-old stepped and weaved his way through the traffic to hand Samoa an early 5-0 lead. It was a lead they pressed out to 17-0 before Regan Ware made sure that New Zealand had five points to show for their seven minutes. Samoa struck instantly off the second-half restart but Ware was there again. With the clash poised at 22-12, New Zealand hit twice to edge ahead. At 26-22 down Samoa had the ball in their hands as the time went into the red, but their opponents gained the final turnover required and kicked the ball into row z.