World Cup Sevens: Tournament Celebrated, format less-so
Photos and Story: Mark Janzen
There’s no doubt, it was a Rugby World Cup Sevens to remember.
History was made with New Zealand defending their titles on both the men’s and women’s sides. More than 100,000 fans walked through the gates at AT&T Park in San Francisco for a rugby spectacle of epic proportions.
With the far-flung fans heading home and the field returning to its baseball roots, we look back on the 2018 World Cup.
New Zealand took both titles and, with that, the country now holds all four World Cup trophies, including both the men’s and women’s championships in the 15s game. That right there is simply incredible.
On the women’s side, the Black Ferns once again proved their dominance on the sevens pitch. The very on-form Black Ferns finished the year with 26 consecutive wins, including a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, and received full marks for their World Cup title victory in San Francisco.
They are playing at another level than the rest of the world.
Ruby Tui – New Zealand
“This season has been the craziest, most unscriptable time we’ve ever had. If anything, it’s just taught us adaptability, which is kind of perfect because in sevens, the game changes so quickly. It was like one big crazy sevens game.”
Sarah Goss – New Zealand
“It’s been probably one of the best years of my life, to be honest. To be able to travel the world and to be able to play rugby with these sisters is amazing, but then to take two pinnacle events home to New Zealand is incredible as well.”
Seeing Ruby Tui sing New Zealand’s anthem with such emotion was all one needs to know about the connection between rugby and her country.
The All Blacks Sevens are back. With the World Cup win, coupled with the Commonwealth Games' gold medal, New Zealand’s men’s team has risen back to the top of the sevens game. Taking a back seat to Fiji and South Africa on the circuit in recent years (since 2013-14, New Zealand hasn’t finished higher than third overall in the Sevens Series final standings), the All Blacks Sevens came to play this weekend, disposing of the Fijians in the semifinal before putting in a comprehensive shift against England in the final.
Chuck Laidlaw – New Zealand Coach
“I’m not sure if it’s one thing (that sets New Zealand apart). I think it’s a lot of little things that add up. We’ve got a proud history as a rugby country. We have a great talent pool and a lot of good knowledge in the country on how to play the game and how to perform in big tournaments. There’s also a real humility to New Zealanders around rugby. We know we’re pretty good at it, but we also know you've got to keep working hard to stay at the top. I think that’s the thing that stands out for me – the ability to work hard every day and have a humility and honesty to working hard.”
While the USA women’s team settled for fourth place and indeed, in the moment, it was a disappointing result, the Eagles solidified themselves into the elite stratosphere within the sevens game. With a fifth place finish in the 2017-18 Sevens Series, they were already in the club, but their performance in San Francisco was yet another indicator of the progress of the USA program. They pushed the eventual champion Black Ferns to the brink in the semifinals (26-21) and their performance throughout the event has the team in a great position moving forward.
Going down “What If” Lane, especially in sevens, is most often rife with cracks and pot holes, but one can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the USA had a healthy Alev Kelter. Who knows how it all would have played out if the USA’s all-time leading point-scorer was in the mix, but she’s the type of player who would have had a significant impact had she not been held out with an injury.
Umm…who suggested “Who Let the Dogs Out?” be the song played each time the USA women’s team scored a try. I’m hoping it’s an inside joke that I missed because otherwise, it was a painful selection.
The USA men’s sixth place finish seemed to leave a little on the bone, but in reality it was still an all-time best for the program at the Rugby World Cup Sevens. However, that being said, the Americans were an extra-time try away from reaching the semifinals as they fell to eventual silver medal-winning England 24-19. A bounce here or there and it could have been a really special tournament for the Eagles. If you can forgive the fifth-place contest when the USA lost 33-7 to Argentina, the tournament was another example of the Americans putting themselves right on the doorstep of becoming a regular top-four team on the series.
It’s hard to sugarcoat the result for Canada’s women’s team – it was disappointing. After a fourth place finish on the series, which was a bit of a missed mark in its own right, a seventh place result in San Francisco was nowhere near meeting expectations. Indeed, the team is a younger group of players and it’s one that has plenty of promise, but the tournament marked a tough end to a challenging 2017-18 season – one that also saw Canada finish fourth at the Commonwealth Games.
Despite the disappointment for Canada’s women’s team, Pam Buisa showed why she is going to become a fan favourite. Her tenacity on the pitch is apparent both with ball in hand and without. She has the tools to be a key player for Canada moving forward, and there’s a certain Brazilian player who can attest to her physical abilities.
Like their female counterparts, Canada’s men’s team left San Francisco unhappy. Canada’s only two wins of the tournament came against Papua New Guinea (29-21) and Japan (35-17), both of whom aren’t regulars on the series. Canada eventually finished 12th overall. There is lots of work to be done to get Canada back playing in the quarter-finals regularly on the tour, and a frustrated Damian McGrath didn’t mince words in his World Cup postmortem.
Damian McGrath – Canada’s Men’s Head Coach
“We’re disappointed. Like any good business, you need to invest in it…and we haven’t invested in the program. I think at this moment, we’re on the precipice of starting that downward trend. We either invest in it or it’s going to be a struggle. It might not be politically correct to say, but I’m just frustrated for the players who sacrifice so much.”
While the women’s tournament was a fantastic piece of entertainment, far too few people saw it. For all the rugby fans who were in San Francisco, it was a shame so few actually watched the women’s final on Saturday night. After the men’s quarter-finals ended in the mid-afternoon, the stadium emptied. It was so empty that even the seagulls – who roll in at the ends of ball games to pick up the scraps – arrived while the women’s tournament was marching toward the final. Fans who left happened to miss some fantastic rugby, and frankly it is a statement as to how far the women’s game still has yet to go.
For Mexico, the tournament was all about experience. Making their debut at the World Cup was a monumental moment for the women’s sevens program, and while the Serpientes were held without a try in the tournament, just being at the dance was an invaluable learning experience. Now, the team turns its focus to the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games in Colombia and the RAN (Rugby Americas North) Sevens in September, which serves as a qualifier for the 2019 Pan American Games and 2019 Hong Kong Sevens.
Robin MacDowell – Mexico Head Coach
“We train for opportunities like this and train for pressure like this. This experience is massive. Once you’ve been to the highest level and realize that it’s not that scary, you know that you can go through any other team.
“You can’t even blink at this level, and you have to operate so fast. We’ll be going into the next competition operating faster than anybody. Every little thing is going to set us up for success in that competition, and that’s what I’m excited about. Now we’re going to hit the reset button and go back to work.”
Isabela Gonzalez – Mexico
“I think it’s just amazing. I couldn’t have imagined this when I was young and now I’m here and it’s the best experience. I’m not playing for me. I’m playing for my family, my team, and for Mexico. Being in a stadium of people knowing that we were representing Mexico throughout rugby was just the best experience. In Mexico, this will have a huge impact. Many people are proud of us and we are proud of ourselves.”
Who knew Scotland would be the fashionistas of the tournament? They rolled out their new lime green jersey and it looked sharp. Remaining simple, it was a vibrant new look that will be their alternate kit for the 2018-19 season. Well done.
With the tournament being played on a baseball park, one of the coolest captures of the tournament was when Ireland’s Jimmy O'Brien seemingly slid into home (or very close it home plate) for a “walk-off” win over Chile. Tied 12-12, O’Brien’s try at the death saw Ireland escape out of the Pre-Round of 16 before going on to finish ninth overall. See photo.
Fiji’s presence in the stadium was palpable. Sure, it was expected that Fijian supporters would be out in full force, but it was still incredible to feel the buzz that swelled in the lead-up to Fiji running onto the field. The whole stadium turned baby blue, with flags appearing in all corners. And the noise when Fiji scored was louder than any other cheer throughout the weekend – USA included.
The format of the tournament remained a source of controversy. In the end, champions were produced, but the knock-out style was still a piece up for debate.
Portia Woodman – New Zealand
“I think this tournament made us realize that if we don’t step up and we don’t play our best from the get-go, we’re going to be out. It’s probably really perfect for us to learn how to step up, get our mentality right and get our bodies right, so when we hit the field, we’re ready to go.”
Connor Braid – Canada
“The (regular format) can be heartbreaking at times, but I think for the game to evolve and keep growing the way it’s growing, I really like the four-team pool play format. Am I a fan of this (World Cup) format? I don’t think so.”
Clark Laidlaw – New Zealand
“I haven’t changed my mind. I don’t enjoy the format. But at the end of the day, once we’re through the first game…every tournament is straight knock-out once you get to quarter-finals. But when you have coaches’ and players’ livelihoods at stake and the format isn’t quite what we’re paid to do, then it’s an interesting question in my eyes.”
Ruby Tui – New Zealand
“I loved it because it forces you to respect every single team you played. You have to really go out and give everything in every game. You can’t let anything slip. I really loved it.”