Tapper scored two tries. / Photos: Mike Lee / KLC fotos for World Rugby
There wasn’t much that separated the USA and New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup Sevens Cup semifinals, as the 26-21 decision expresses. The Black Ferns trailed the Eagles 14-12 at the half and regrouped with more possession in the second to pull out the win and berth to the final against France. The USA will play Australia for third.
Abby Gustaitis went up, successfully, for the 10-meter kickoff, and Jordan Gray crashed it up the middle, but New Zealand had planned to take that battle to the breakdown.
“We knew that they were going to hit us up the guts, right up the middle,” New Zealand’s Ruby Tui said. “If you watch 7s, a lot of teams just spread the ball and try to move the ball. They don’t. They try to use their brute strength and then pass it.”
New Zealand drew a not-releasing penalty on the USA’s 40, and eventually moved the ball worked wide to Michaela Blyde, who cut back inside and evaded several defenders en route to a Tyla Nathan Wong-converted try.
At the Women For Rugby fundraiser earlier this week, USA Women’s 7s coach Richie Walker said that team performs best when its back is against the wall, and spectators saw those sentiments in the USA’s reaction. From the Gustaitis-gathered restart, the ball moved wide to Kristen Thomas for gains. A USA scrum, followed by a high-tackle penalty, saw Naya Tapper quick tap from the mark and go past Niall Williams and Blyde for the try down the sideline. Captain Nicole Heavirland knocked over a nice conversion from about 15 meters from the touchline, 7-all.
After the restart, Gray punched up the middle and New Zealand was pinged for in-from-the-side. From the Black Ferns’ 22, the ball moved wide and Ryan Carlyle pinned her defender to set up a Portia Woodman vs. Tapper showdown. Tapper won and scored her second try, and Heavirland nailed the conversion from five meters off the sideline, 14-7.
There was only a minute left in the half when the restart sailed just short of 10 meters. New Zealand restarted at the 50 meter and a switch put Tui into a gap. She had the legs to finish for the try, 14-12 to the USA into the break.
“It’s funny because I probably shouldn’t [have scored] because I’m in the forwards and you’re supposed to give it to the pretty ones out wide,” Tui half-joked. “You’ve got to have a game plan that exposes every single hole: If it’s in the middle, it’s in the middle; if it’s out wide, it’s out wide. The way rugby is now, the level it’s at now – it’s come so far since the last World Cup [in 2013 when New Zealand won] you have to be able to do that. If you can’t expose every single aspect of every player, you can’t be in that final and that’s what this game is all about.”
Nevertheless, New Zealand had some work to do. The Black Ferns might have ended with the first-half momentum but the home crowd was ready to nullify that edge.
“Pump it a little bit? We’ve got to pump it up so much that we grow two feet,” Tui said of bringing extra energy to AT&T Park. “We were anticipating playing the U.S. on their home soil. They’re one of the proudest nations, extremely patriotic. We knew they were not going to take this one lightly. And I think for them, they probably feel the same – to play the Black jersey at home in front of a home crowd. We heard the chant, we heard the, ‘USA!’ We knew it was coming. To be honest, that’s where you want to play teams. You want to play them at their best, at events where it matters. We can beat them five times a year but it doesn’t mean anything when you get here.”
Captain Heavirland, when comparing halves, indicated that there weren’t any big changes, little ones, but that New Zealand got more possession and did well to use it. It started with a penalty on the second-half kickoff, and the Black Ferns found themselves trying to attack from deep in their end. Gayle Broughton then planted a stellar step between defenders and had the gas to leg out a long try and go-ahead points, 19-14.
New Zealand’s restart exited the pitch at the USA’s 22 meter, but a messy lineout saw the Black Ferns grab possession. The teams traded a couple of penalties but play stayed inside the USA’s 22. Sarah Goss did well to set up an overload, pushing off a couple of would-be tacklers and giving Woodman the room to finish down the sideline, 26-14 with the Nathan Wong conversion.
There was approximately a minute left and the USA trailed by two scores, but a pair of New Zealand penalties saw the Eagles march downfield quickly. Lauren Doyle was tackled short of the try line but she popped to her feet and sprinted into the try zone uncontested. Heavirland kicked the extras for the 26-21 final.
“There are a couple things we need to work on there, and they exposed it,” Tui said of the contact area. “We’re going to go back to the drawing board, have a little look, and tweak up what we have to tweak up, because this tournament isn’t over by any means.
“France is going to be looking to expose us so we’re going to have to bring it just as hard if not harder than we did against the USA, which you know is asking a lot of our team,” Tui added.
The USA will run out onto AT&T Park’s pitch one more time today to take on Australia at 7:22 p.m. Pacific. The championship match between New Zealand and France occurs at 7:47 p.m.