Sunday, March 5, 2017

Notes From The Vegas Semi-finals

Photo: Connie Hatfield
By Derek Catsam

Notes from the Vegas Sevens Cup Semis, Sunday March 5, 2017: (Author’s Note: These were written live as the matches took place, which explains the use of present tense): The Semis will pit South Africa (leading the standings so far this year) against the USA (a respectable 8th) and Fiji (3rd) against New Zealand. This should be fun.

USA-South Africa – I have to give full disclosure here: I remain a South Africa rugby fan when they play the US. Don’t tell Trump.

The US starts off great – scoring a try that blended power and grace. South Africa loses the ensuing kick and again the US is charging – home field advantage is real, at least at the start of this match. The fans are electric when Perry Baker touches the ball. The Americans cross the try line but South Africa does a good job of holding the ball up. The crowd breaks into a USA! Chant, as the US wins a scrum and Folau Niua scores another try, this one in front of the post. USA 12-0. The first-place South Africans have their work cut out for them as they have barely held possession. South Africa building momentum and showing their class. Snyman scores on the far side. Long kick close, but no good. 12-5 as the minute mark approaches. With phenomenal play on both sides of the ball and South Africa scores a try with Ruhan Nel crashing over. Another tough kick, though, and the miss means the US maintains the lead, 12-10 at the half. When the second half opens the Blitzbokke will have a sense of momentum, but the US is playing well and will start with possession.

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The South Africans steal the ball on the kick after it goes ten in the air but the wind blows it back, and Werner Kok runs rampant for a try to give the South Africans the lead. Yet another missed conversion (pity anyone kicking from distance and/or angles today) means that despite their three tries the Blitzbokke are only up by 3. But another steal on a kick gives South Africa possession deep – the US steals it away, work a couple of quality passes, and score to re-take the lead. No good on the conversion, but it is 17-15 with under 4 to go. Whoever has possession last might win this one. South Africa looks set to score, but the US steals it away at the 5. South Africa gets it back and Dylan Sage goes in wide to give the South Africans the lead. Yet another far, angled kick goes awry, and it is 20-17. The US gets possession after a deep kickoff by the South Africans, make several nice passes and work the ball downfield. They kick the ball ahead and Perry Baker seems set for some fireworks, but the ball goes into touch. The US steal the ensuing lineout but then turn it over and South Africa kicks the ball into touch and claim a victory that will take them to the finals. Still, the Americans have nothing to hang their heads about, and will contest for the third place trophy.  

New Zealand-Fiji – On paper the match of the tournament.

Teams feeling one another out early. New Zealand looks like they scored a try, but it has gone to tv replay (which has been rare in this tournament) and it takes a while to be reviewed – holy smokes, Fiji is called for a high tackle, so it is a penalty try, which gives 7 points. Given that the try was at the flag and the conversion would have been nearly impossible, and given that the Fijians will have to play the All Blacks with six players, it sure seems as if we will get a sevens Cup Finals matchup between the old SANZAR blood rivals. New Zealand works across another try against the shorthanded Fijians, kick the conversion, and a quarter of the way through it is 14-0. Still, with ball in hand even six Fiji players are very potent. They work it inside the 22 but the ball flies forward, with some help from the NZ defender, New Zealand win the scrum and kick it deep away. Fiji is undaunted and resilient and show their quality with ball in hand. Another replay delays the game, but it just delays the inevitable. No conversion. 12-5. Fiji swarms the All Blacks, but they find some space, run to mid-field before being swarmed again, and the half ends 12-5, albeit with an ugly injury to Fiji’s captain Osea Kolinisau.

Fiji opens the second on fire and in a fighting mood. They pound a try across just to the right of the posts and hammer through the conversion – if anything it has gotten windier, I’ve heard that gusts have been more than 50mph – to bring it to within 2, 14-12. Fiji wants the world to remember who the defending champions are of the Sevens World Series. New Zealand does some good things when they get possession but Fiji steals it away and look set to run it all the way back before the defenders find their pace and tackle the Fijian. This one is going down to the wire. Oh my – Fiji finds some space on the side, then after receiving a pass close to the near touchline Masivesi Dakuwaqa cuts inside, scores a try between the posts, make the conversion, and suddenly it is 19-14 Fiji. New Zealand crosses midfield inside the last minute, but go into touch, Fiji gets a lineout but the All Blacks steal and are fighting to the 10-meter mark as the horn blows. New Zealand lose possession and Fiji win after scoring 19 unanswered, setting up a Blitzbokke –Fiji finals.

So the finals pit the best team so far this year in the form of the Blitzbokke against the best team by far last year, Fiji. It should be fantastic.

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