Hamilton Sevens: Australia rub salt into New Zealand wounds as Fiji march to glory

HAMILTON, 05 FEBRUARY 2018 (STUFF NZ)---Old foe Fiji have gone on to win the inaugural Hamilton Sevens after sending New Zealand crashing out in an enthralling semi-final on Sunday.

The crowds packed the stands at FMG Stadium Waikato for the titanic semi-final tussle Hamilton had been waiting for - and the contest of the two great rugby sevens nations produced an outstanding encounter worthy of the occasion.

New Zealand relinquished a second-half lead against a resurgent Fiji, who beat the hosts 14-12 and dashed Kiwi hopes of claiming a sevens title on home soil after New Zealand's leg of the World Sevens Series was hosted outside of Wellington for the first time.

It was frantic, frenetic and loud, as the entire stadium brought all the energy of both days of partying together at once, but it was light blue Fijian flags waving with delirious joy all the way to Fiji then beating South Africa 24-17 in the final.

In the bronze medal match, Australia got up to beat New Zealand 8-7 with a match-winning penalty drop goal after the hooter kicked by James Stannard rubbing salt into Kiwi wounds.

Fiji, who were on the brink of elimination in their quarterfinal against Samoa, then avenged their defeat to South Africa in last year's final in Wellington by fighting back to win the Hamilton decider.

Reigning sevens world champions South Africa led 17-5 but the final turned on Branco du Preez's second-half yellow card and Fiji took full advantage with 17 unanswered points - much to the delight of the colourful and noisy pockets of blue and white dotted around the ground.

All the Fijian flamboyance you would expect was on show for some mesmeric attacks that South Africa simply had no answer to as Fiji marched to a thrilling victory.

New Zealand had missed their chances - Luke Masirewa guilty of knocking on during their final attack - after leading Fiji 12-7 after the break in their semi-final.

Coach Clark Laidlaw lamented how they let a place in the final slip through their fingers.

"It was a hell of a game and typical of New Zealand v Fiji. There were tight margins across the weekend and unfortunately we were on the wrong side in that last game," he said.

"But we have got stronger. It's our fourth tournament together with a new coaching group and we're playing against teams that have had coaches for three to five years.

'We're realistic around where we're at and we're developing, but just frustrated to lose."

It's Laidlaw's first full season as New Zealand sevens coach after taking over last June.

New Zealand were second in the series standings before Hamilton with one tournament success in Cape Town after three legs.

But Fiji marched on to the final on Sunday after flying out of the blocks. 

Josua Vakurunabili rounded off a scintillating move that New Zealand just couldn't stop despite some heroic defence from the outstanding Vilimoni Koroi. 

The hosts then hit back after Fiji twice lost the ball and an initial break from Regan Ware stretched their defence, New Zealand switched the play, and Sam Dickson scored in the corner.

Fiji led 7-5 at the break after a tense exchange of possession, but New Zealand then hit the front for the first time when Koroi broke clear to score under the posts.

The defeaning noise was raising the roof and Fiji came roaring back again to reclaim the lead through Mesulame Kunavula, and after having one try ruled out, their desperate defence kept New Zealand out in the final minutes.

New Zealand had earlier left it late again to come through their quarter-final against England.

After securing top spot in the pool stages with Joe Ravouvou's last-minute try beating Argentina 17-12 on Saturday, the hosts secured a semi-final place thanks to Scott Curry's late try. Ruadrih McConnochie's double kept England in the contest but New Zealand won 19-12.

Fiji were given an almighty scare by Pacific Island rivals Samoa in their quarter-final and needed an incredible last-gasp try from Kalione Nasoko to snatch a dramatic victory.

Samoa, who are coached by New Zealand sevens legend Sir Gordon Tietjens, led 10-7 with time up but were turned over and punished as Nasoko gleefully dashed 60 metres down the right flank to break Samoan hearts.

Fiji were that close to losing. But they later left the field as champions.....PACNEWS


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