The semifinal was a heartbreaker of a defeat with Fiji rallying from a 12-0 deficit and New Zealand denied a possible penalty try on fulltime.
In a frantic final minute, and with New Zealand leading 17-14, both teams launched swift and expansive attacks. Fiji secured possession with 30 seconds to spare, and Filipe Sauturaga strode stoically toward the left corner from halfway. He was run down by Akuila Rokolisoa five meters short of the line. Unluckily Brady Rush lost his feet at the ruck and the exhausted defence couldn’t retreat in time. Viwa Naduvalo tapped urgently and charged over unopposed. The conversion was missed but there was still time.
Scott Curry controlled an awkward kick-off, recycled, and New Zealand stretched to both touchlines. Eventually, a huge left-to-right pass by Tepaea Cook-Savage released Rokolisoa. He burst from the 22 to the Fijian ten-meter mark linking with Curry who supplied Cook-Savage close to the touchline and near the Fijian 22. With nobody ahead, he kicked towards the in-goal area but collided with a Fijian defender as he was about to set chase from a leading position. Was Cook-Savage impeded on purpose? The Fijian obstruction appeared more desperate than cynical.
Initially, Fiji was ragged and unsettled by the swarming New Zealand defence. Poor handling gifted Rokolisoa and Dylan Collier tries as the All Blacks Sevens appeared to be cruising to a sixth successive win against Fiji.
A turning point was deep into first half referees' time. The watertight defence lapsed and Manueli Maisamoa galloped away. New Zealand had the chance to draw the curtain but refused opting to attack instead.
Fiji was a more vibrant and confident outfit after the break and a converted try propelled them to a 14-12 lead. Rush missed pool play yesterday, but it wasn’t obvious. His majestic pass to Regan Ware voyaged two-thirds of the field and restored the All Black advantage before the cruel climax.
The quarter-final against France ended controversially too. With time up, and behind 19-12, France ventured deep into New Zealand territory. A penalty at the ruck five metres out left New Zealand stretched defensively. Following a quick tap, the considerable frame of Joris Simon crashed over to make it 19-17. Thomas Carol surveyed his conversion to tie the game, 20 meters out, 15 meters in from touch. He took too long and never kicked the ball. Only 30 seconds are permitted for a shot. Carol protested claiming he was distracted by All Blacks walking towards him. His appeals were in vain.
There was no guarantee France would be successful with the conversion. Paulin Riva (584 points in 208 matches) missed a sitter at 14-12.
Rokolisoa dazzled in the first minute. With apparently little on he cast aside Stephen Parez (342 matches, 94 tries) in a thrilling individual effort. Just before halftime, the tireless Curry scored to make it 12-7 at the interval.
Reminiscent of Toulouse the stubborn French regained the lead only for Collier to wriggle through congestion and free Tim Mikkelson. Mikkelson in his 101st tournament performed courageous tackles, intercepts, and efficient attacks.
The third-place playoff was eerily like the semi-final. Despite wearing some jolting hits, New Zealand was calm and controlled with early tries to Xavier Tito-Harris and Rush building a 14-0 lead.
Once again New Zealand conceded late in the first spell and early in the second. Malakesi Masefau is only 18 years old, but his brace showed the quality and courage that defied his youth. Melani Matavao earned Samoa the lead for the first time but another youngster turning heads Che Clarke scored a try out wide to force extra time. Both teams were spent. A penalty opened a gap for Taunuu Niulevaea whose energy-sapping burst was a worthy winner.
Argentina won the Cup final 35-14 against Fiji.
Rokolisoa scored a leading 415 points in the 2022/23 World Series. His haul of 44 tries was only three short of the All Blacks Sevens single-season record set by Karl Te Nana.
New Zealand was ninth in the first event of the season in Hong Kong but bounced back to win five of 11 tournaments. Five tournament wins are the most since they won 8/13 in 2002.
There’s no break for coach Clark Laidlaw. He will join the New Zealand Under 20s as they seek to win the Junior World Cup for the first time since 2017.
Final Standings & Olympic Qualifiers
New Zealand, 201