Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
The USA improved to 2-0 in Kitakyushu, the fourth stop on the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, after defeating Fiji 31-5. Ireland (1-1) awaits in the final pool play round and is coming off a 31-0 loss to England (1-1).
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Fiji injected more physicality into round two and brought that structure-stressing offense that can bait players into ill discipline. But for the most part, the USA was patient and connected, and regrouped well to make sure a couple of penalties or passes that went to ground didn’t amount to any damage.
The opening kickoff was batted into Fiji’s possession, resulting in a quick break through the staggered defense. The ball traded hands – pass into touch, not-straight lineout – before Fiji reset with a scrum in the USA’s end. The ball shot out to the weak side, necessitating a longer pass to the back line, one that dribbled along the ground and allowed the USA to shoot up. Kristi Kirshe made an excellent tackle that surprised the Fijian ballcarrier and resulted in a knock-on. Kristen Thomas put in a show-stopping step to get around the defense and dot down the opening try, 5-0.
The restart contest went to the USA, this time landing in the hands of Alev Kelter, who is so good through the middle and able to dance around the defense coming across. Kelter converted the try for the 12-0 lead.
Fiji did well to get its restart jumper in the air and gathered the ball for a quick break down the unguarded sideline. Kirshe got between the support and nearly picked off the rainbow pass to Asinate Ufia Savu. But the gamble paid off for Fiji and a try resulted, 12-5 after four minutes.
Ilona Maher scooped up the deep restart and the USA gained a penalty at the 22 meter. Joanne Fa’avesi brought the team to midfield, and then Kelter did a lovely job keeping the ball in play along the sideline while the support caught up. Fiji was quicker in support and when the ball came out the back of the ruck to Cheta Emba, the pressure forced a kick off the ground. This is where Fiji can wreak havoc – tempting teams out of discipline – but the Eagles were fortunate on this occasion that Fiji, too, was not set up to defend.
Instead, Kirshe picked up the ball and carved through the middle, found Maher, who sucked in two defenders and got the pass to Fa’avesi for the try. Kelter converted for the 19-5 lead into the break.
Fiji’s second-half kickoff didn’t go 10 meters. Thomas kicked through the mark and somehow, magically, single-handedly confounded the defense and took the corner for a 45-meter run. The Eagles were quick in support but missed an opportunity to spin the ball wide. Contact came, and landed, but a Fijian knock-on eventually allowed the USA to reset with an attacking scrum.
Lauren Doyle was pushed into touch at the five meter, and for some reason, Fiji opted for a quick lineout, only to ramp up the pressure on itself. The team did manage to get a kick off and move play to the 40, where the USA resumed control during the lineout. A bad pass to Naya Tapper saw the wing get bottled up, but she did a great job of staying on her feet and preventing a potential turnover. That allowed the recycle to make it wide to Maher, who scored in the corner. Kelter added a stellar sideline conversion, 26-5.
Jordan Matyas very nearly took the restart, flying through the air with intimidating pace, but a slight knock-on gave Fiji the scrum. Two penalties followed and set up Fiji for its first significant attack in the USA’s end. The defense stood up, driving the attack back 20 meters, and forcing the Fijians to play more individualistically. Meya Bizer eventually forced a not-releasing penalty in the ruck.
The USA momentarily lost possession when a finishing pass to Tapper went into touch, but the subsequent Fiji lineout went over the top and into Maher’s hands. The prop made good ground and then Doyle very nearly crossed the line. Nicole Heavirland took the pass off the ruck and Fiji’s defense had the scrumhalf lined up, but the co-captain absorbed that hit, bounced off and dove over for the try, 31-5.
Next up: Ireland at 12:20 a.m. PT.