x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Underdogs triumph

The big four exit from the Melrose Cup in succession with Wales' unexpected victory over New Zealand starting the carnage.

Victor Odur, in red, floors Fiji's Apolosi Satala with a bone crunching tackle during Kenya's shock quarter-final victory over the holders.
Victor Odur, in red, floors Fiji's Apolosi Satala with a bone crunching tackle during Kenya's shock quarter-final victory over the holders.

DUBAI // "You've just got to take it on the chin" was an expression used independently half an hour apart by the stunned coaches of New Zealand and England as they came to terms with unexpected early knockout blows in the Sevens World Cup.

Gordon Tietjens, whose Kiwi team had put a recent spell of indifferent form behind them to claim top seeding among the eight quarter-finalists, had probably spent half of the morning thinking beyond a confrontation with Wales and about how he could guide his men past England in the semi-finals. Similarly, the England coach Ben Ryan, could have been forgiven for looking beyond his team's quarter-final tussle with Samoa and into a showdown with the men in black for a place in the final.

How the mighty have fallen then. Not only did New Zealand and England come to grief in the top half of the draw, but they were joined on an early casualty list by South Africa, seeking to complete a Sevens and 15s World Cup double, and the defending champions Fiji, who had earned a seeding of two from the previous two days' jousting in the pool stages. It was quarter-final carnage which was greeted with mixed emotions by a 32,000 crowd of many nationalities at The Sevens Stadium and it set up the chance for Wales to appear in the final for the first time against the emerging force of Argentina, winners of last month's warm-up tournament in California.

The exit of England was the most dramatic of the tournament, coming in "sudden death" two minutes into extra time. Heart-breaking though that was at the hands of an ecstatic Samoan try-scorer Simaika Mikaele, it ensured that justice was done because the South Sea Islanders had already won the tie once, they believed. Leading 26-19 as the hooter sounded they immediately despatched the ball out of play and began their celebrations only to be told by referee Andrew Lees, in a rare act of kindness by an Australian towards Englishmen, that one final line-out had to be formed.

The reprieve of that set piece allowed Josh Drauninui to transform the mood of his team's supporters by scampering over for what proved the equalising try to add to the two scored by flying winger Tom Varndell and one by Ollie Phillips. Samoa, who had led 21-7 at half time, looked at that point as thought they believed they had blown their big chance but to their credit they regrouped and within two added minutes had secured their 31-26 passage

Ben Gollings, who lamented his failure to improve all four of England's tries - his near miss from the touchline proved to be the margin between success and failure - compared the defeat to the 2006 Commonwealth Games final, when England narrowly missed out on gold to New Zealand and the World Cup semi-final of 2005 which also brought extra-time elimination. Echoing the words of his coach Ryan, Gollings reflected: "We have to go out and learn from this now, and the next step is to win the World Series, that is massive on our agenda to put this season right. We were brilliantly prepared, the boys were ready to go. That game was slipping away from us, but we clawed it back only to let in slip in extra time."

The Kiwis were also a matter of seconds away from making progress when Tom Isaacs sent them into collective despair by profiting from a favourable bounce off his knee to pounce on a loose ball and snatch an unlikely 15-14 Welsh victory. Wales, who had been given a helping hand into the last eight by virtue of England and New Zealand's scoring records in winning their respective groups, capitalised on their good fortune of surviving as one of the two best runners-up to get the better of Samoa in a tight semi-final.

Again Isaacs proved the matchwinner crossing for his team's third try after earlier efforts from Aled Brew and Tal Selly to secure a 19-12 victory. The second semi-final won, 12-0 by Argentina over spirited Kenyan opponents, proved something of a let down after what had gone before, the South Americans being content to do just enough to get through by virtue of tries by Haracio San Martin and Martin Bustos Moyano.

The Pumas had shown more of what they are capable of in the quarter-finals when they recovered superbly to make the large South African contingent in the crowd regret their premature celebrations. Trailing 12-0 with only two minutes remaining, the Argentines snatched a 14-12 verdict thanks to two Moyano tries and two nerveless conversions by Vuyo Zangqa - the second to prevent another sudden death finish.