Australia are closing in on their first HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title since 2018 after booking a quarter-final spot on day one at the HSBC Canada Sevens in Langford, but New Zealand could provide a stern challenge on finals day after impressing on their long-awaited return to competitive action.
The Australians will be assured of their third Series title if they reach the Cup final in Langford, having won three of the four Series events thus far to open up an 18-point lead on top of the standings.
Tim Walsh’s side are now two victories away from achieving that feat after clinching three wins from three to top Pool A ahead of Canada, Spain and Mexico to set up a quarter-final against las Leones.
A series of exciting ties - France v Fiji, New Zealand v Canada and Ireland v USA - will complete the quarter-final line-up on Sunday.
New Zealand’s eye-catching first appearance of the 2021-22 season was the story of the day, as they topped a fiercely competitive Pool C, 818 days on from their last Series outing.
The Black Ferns, who won Olympic gold in Tokyo last year, haven’t made a Series appearance since Sydney in February 2020 due Covid-19 restrictions, but made up for lost time by kicking off with big wins over England and USA, beating both without conceding a single point.
Fiji, who were also returning after a Covid-enforced absence, were denied a first-ever Series win over New Zealand at the death when Portia Woodman’s last-gasp try sealed a 12-12 draw at the death in a thrilling finale to Pool C action.
France, Australia’s closest Series challengers, came out on top in Pool B with three wins from three, including an impressive 28-12 win over Sevilla silver medallists Ireland in the decider.
The Irish still progressed as group runners-up as Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe showed yet more outstanding form by scoring back-to-back hat-tricks against Japan and Brazil before taking her Langford tally to a tournament-high seven tries against the French.
POOL A: AUSSIES START FAST, CANADA IMPRESS ON HOME TURF
Almost three months have passed since the last HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series event in Seville, but Australia showed no signs of rust as they continued the form that has seen them take three golds and one bronze from this season’s four events thus far.
They got started by running in ten tries in a whopping 58-0 win over invitational side Mexico, before doubles from Maddison Levi and Charlotte Caslick inspired a 24-7 victory over Spain.
That set up a Pool A decider against hosts Canada, who edged Spain 19-10 before thrashing Mexico 43-0, their second win over the Mexicans in a week after beating them last weekend to clinch a place at the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022.
The Canadians, roared on by a boisterous home crowd, looked to have done enough to at least go in level at the break after defending bravely throughout the first half.
However, Faith Nathan made a weaving run from in front of her own posts to the other end of the pitch after the buzzer had gone, and eventually offloaded to Caslick for a simple finish that gave the Aussies the lead.
Australia started the second half fast as Demi Hayes surged under the posts seconds after the restart and Levi soon added two tries to top off a ruthless second half performance, but Olivia de Couvreur’s consolation try with the clock in the red earned one of the biggest cheers of the day despite Canada’s 28-5 margin of defeat.
POOL B: FRANCE DOMINATE, MURPHY CROWE STARS AGAIN
Pool B threw up an intriguing battle for top spot between an improving Ireland side that reached its first-ever Cup final last time out in Seville, and a France team ranked second in the Series standings.
Both sides kicked off with comfortable wins over Brazil and invitational side Japan, but it was the masterful form of Irish sensation Murphy Crowe that caught the eye once again as she notched back-to-back first half hat-tricks in a 22-7 win over Japan and 31-14 victory against Brazil.
Brazil’s Thalia Costa was also in fine form and ran in three tries in a 38-12 win over Japan to help her country seal third place in the group and put her second in the Langford try-scoring charts on five, only behind Murphy Crowe.
France and Ireland faced off in a direct shoot-out for top spot and Les Bleues ran out comfortable winners to stake their claim as serious contenders.
Still on the hunt for their first Cup final of the season, after picking up bronze medals in the two Dubai events, France recorded a third consecutive victory as Séraphine Okemba surged over the try line in the opening minute to set the tone.
Murphy Crowe soon hit back with her seventh try of the tournament, but Okemba’s blistering pace took her clear down the right wing for her second try of the game and a full-pitch sprint from Chloé Pelle helped France establish a comfortable lead by half time.
Lou Noël crossed in the second half, with Vicki Elmes Kinlan pulling back a late consolation try in a 28-12 win for France.
POOL C: THRILLS AND SPILLS IN GROUP OF DEATH
New Zealand and Fiji’s return after their Covid-enforced absences led to Pool C being one of the toughest groups in recent memory, with the Olympic gold and bronze medallists joined by the fourth and seventh seeds, USA and England.
It quickly lived up to the hype as the USA Women's Eagles edged Fiji 20-19 in a thrilling tournament curtain-raiser, before a Black Ferns side featuring 11 Olympic champions made a statement of intent by thrashing England 31-0 on their Series season debut.
New Zealand speedster Woodman, World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Decade and all-time top Series try-scorer, crossed the whitewash with her first touch in what was to be the first of four tries for her on Saturday, taking her one shy of becoming the first woman to touch down 200 times.
Two of those scores came in a 36-0 thrashing of the USA in the Black Ferns’ second match, but New Zealand didn’t have it so easy against a Fijiana outfit that had responded superbly to their opening defeat by comfortably beating England 38-5.
In a repeat of the semi-final at the Tokyo Olympics, New Zealand and Fiji went toe-to-toe in a topsy-turvy Pool decider.
Michaela Blyde opened the scoring on the brink of half time after an error-strewn first half, but Fiji increased the attacking pressure after the break and turned the game on its head through tries from Raijieli Daveua and Alowesi Nakoci, the latter sprinting clear to finish off a wonderful team move that began 80 metres down the other end of the pitch.
But with Fiji on the brink of a historic win, Woodman broke their hearts with a burst of pace that sent her under the posts with the clock in the red, and Risi Pouri-Lane converted to rescue a dramatic 12-12 draw and seal top spot.
USA took second place with a 31-24 win over England in the final Pool C clash, with Fiji coming in third.
KNOCKOUT ACTION AWAITS ON SUNDAY
The quarter-final action kicks off with a mouth-watering clash between France and Fiji at 10:00 local time, followed by New Zealand’s meeting with hosts Canada at 10:22.
Ireland face the USA next at 10:44, before Australia take on Spain at 11:06.
The Cup semi-finals will take place at 13:50 and 14:12, and the winner will be decided with the final at 16:58.