Sunday, March 5, 2017

As It Happened: Vegas Finals

By Derek Catsam

New Zealand-USA – Obviously a big, big game for USA – more meaningful for them, in many ways, than New Zealand. These two teams have met 36 times in sevens and the Kiwis have walked away with 32 wins, with New Zealand outscoring the US 1130-294. That said, much of that dominance came before the American Sevens became what they have become – not a powerhouse, but also not a minnow in the 7-man format.

The US starts on the attack. Americans crashing forward, with Maka Unufe smashing through, spinning, and scoring under the posts. The goalposts are waving in the gusts, but the conversion is good, and the US takes a 7-0 lead on the All Blacks, who will hardly be daunted by a 7-point deficit. The US steals the ball at midfield. Is he going to call a yellow? He does – New Zealand will be a man short! Great opportunity for the Americans. New Zealand nonetheless steals possession but are tentative. Americans force a knock-on. The US will have a scrummage just inside midfield but cannot take advantage, as Baker cannot corral a pass. New Zealand will have their chance to scrum (which, I must say, is kind of a silly way to deal with possession in the sevens game, an attempt to replicate the form but not the substance of the 15s game – just let the team that wins the scrum tap and go) and after working a couple of passes break free, only to lose the ball – it bounces back and forth, the US ultimately takes possession, loses it, and New Zealand drives to the five, passes wide twice, and captain DJ Forbes touches down a try not far from the flag. The worst conversion attempt in history (again, blame the absurdly blustery conditions) does not even rise to the level of the crossbar, which does not matter because it does not make the five-meter line, and we go into the half with the US leading 7-5.

Take the jump to read more.

New Zealand gets possession to open the second half, shows intent and drive, and when Tim Mikkelson gets the ball in space he scores easily – on the conversion the ball was going through the posts, in still conditions would have gone over by ten meters, but the ball literally stops in midair and starts blowing backward as if it hit a force field. I have never seen anything like that at this level of rugby. 10-7 All Blacks. US shows some fancy passing from a lineout, get the ball down to the 22. After what seemed like a turnover to NZ the US fights and claws inside the 5 and drives for a Danny Barrett try under the crossbar – conversion makes it 14-10 with two and a half to go. New Zealand takes the kick and reveal their class on a rangy, pace-y try of the tournament candidate by Sione Molia. No conversion, but 15-14. US has one last shot with time expiring – great run, down to 5 meter line, US will get to tap in with a penalty. And Andrew Durutalo breaks through for the score!

The USA wins, taking third place in one of their greatest Sevens weekends ever, and, as I will argue in a forthcoming piece, arguably the greatest weekend in USA Rugby history full stop.

Fiji-South Africa – to underscore Fiji’s long-standing greatness at the sevens game, they have played South Africa 70 times and have won 40 of those, with two draws. Suffice it to say, very few teams at any level or format of the game have winning records against South Africa. Expect a lot of running rugby, a lot of crashing tackles, a few breakaways, and hopefully a match worthy of the tournament that so far has seen some spectacular rugby and some wonderful games. South Africa and Fiji both have massive fan support here in the stadium, so the atmosphere should be electric, especially with all of the American supporters still riding the wave from the USA victory.

The South Africans kicked to the Fijians who somewhat stuttered in attack. It took more than 90 seconds for Fiji to cross midfield, but they were deadly from there. They crossed the try line, appeared to have scored, were ruled held up, South Africa stole possession, Masivesi Dakuwaqa, hero of the Fiji-New Zealand match stole it back and dove for the try. The conversion was no good. Fiji 5-0. South Africa won a scrum on the ensuing kick. Fiji’s tackling is punishing, perhaps literally so, as Vatemo Ravouvo is given a yellow for basically throwing a  couple of punches while tackling. South Africa makes them pay with flowing, running rugby that the Springboks need to adapt, with Cecil Afrika passing long to Siviwe Soyizwapi on the outside to his left, who gains lots of territory before passing it inside back to Afrika for the score. Conversion makes it 7-5 Blitzbokke. Fiji wins a lineout deep in their own territory, rips off a large swath of real estate but get stopped and at the half the season leaders enjoy a precarious 2-pont gap on Fiji.

The second half starts off with Fiji doling out punishment. They dole out punishment when they tackle and they dole out punishment when they run. But it is not like the South African game is unfamiliar with physicality and the Blitzbokke use some outstanding passing and pace to score a try, and with the ball placed behind the posts it allows for an easy conversion to make the score 14-5. On Fiji’s ensuing possession South Africa steals a pass amidst the crashing bodies. Initially Fiji makes it hard for the South Africans, but the veteran Rosko Specman takes an offload, shoots a gap, hits the afterburners, and scores the try. The conversion from the far side has little chance in these conditions, but the men in green and gold take hold of the game with a 19-5 lead. South Africa quickly gains possession after the kick and look ready for more of the same, but Fiji takes the ball right back and drive to inside of the South African 22. Some brilliant passing gets the ball to Waisea Nacuqu out wide and he places the ball down for a try. A nearly miracle conversion follows and it is 19-12. On the next South African possession things get a bit chippy, but the ref keeps the cards in his pocket. Any more nonsense and there will be red cards, but there are only three seconds left on the clock. South Africa has possession, kicks the ball to touch after some running backward to kill the clock, and die Blitzbokke claims their fourth tournament from five in this year’s series. They are threatening to run away with it. An outstanding team caps off an outstanding tournament with an outstanding performance.

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