NZ Sevens success in sizzling hot conditions
New Zealand men's and women's team celebrate winning their rugby final matches during day two of the World Rugby Sevens series at FMG Stadium in Hamilton on January 26, 2020. (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY / AFP) (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)

In conditions more suited to the dry summer of Sydney or sweltering desert of Dubai, Hamilton provided sizzling hot conditions for the HSBC (New Zealand) NZ Sevens tournament.

The host nation provided rugby sevens to match the perfect stage of FMG Stadium, both the Women and Men running away with their respective titles. That delighted the local crowd, with challenges from Canada and France each repelled.

If the spectators found the 29-degree sunshine too hot to bear, spare a thought for the athletes. Measured at ground-level, it read 47′ Celsius. That is over 116′ Fahrenheit – almost unbearable, so over the two days, full credit should be given to the players.

Sizzling hot can also describe the level of play. Individual skills are at a higher level than ever before. Even though an occasional ball was dropped; even by the likes of Tim Mikkleson and Michaela Blyde, the standards are ever-increasing.

The NZ Sevens leg was hosting the women for the first time, and in a reduced tournament format. Two full days play resulted in New Zealand earning places in the Cup Finals. That was a boost for the hosts, and as a result, has elevated both sides to establish firm leads in the HSBC Sevens Series standings.

Looking closer at the outcome from this weekend, the All Blacks 7s will feel they have made a jump on their closest opposition. Out of the 15 men’s core teams, having 16 points ‘in your back pocket’ now – after winning your second tournament of the series – co-captain Tim Mikkelson will be relieved his group maximized to the disadvantage of others, while surviving the sizzling hot conditions unscathed.

It was the 10th NZ Sevens title for the New Zealand men, and the first time since Australia in 2018, where both women’s and men’s teams won their competitions.

NZ Sevens success in sizzling hot conditions

The men would end up playing France in the Cup final, and it was indirectly with thanks to Kenya and Argentina. Those two sides had upset initial favourites South Africa, and Fiji respectively.

Allowing the Kiwis a semifinal place up against arch-rivals Australia, New Zealand displaced them by coming back after the Aussies held a halftime lead. A yellow card cost two quick NZ tries, would be the difference. Always a tough match, add to that the stifling heat of the day – both teams were lucky to survive.

Regan Ware dives in for a try during the men’s rugby semi-final match at FMG Stadium in Hamilton on January 26, 2020. (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)

That result saw the All Blacks 7s reach another NZ Sevens final. Australia would go on to win the Bronze medal, beating England (who France had beaten).

The hosts would find France a tough challenge, and France deserves respect. The final saw each team score in the opening 10 minutes, before the hosts would display some sizzling rugby sevens, as they eventually won in commanding style.

Earning back-to-back tournament wins, the ‘big game’ players all stood up. Scott Curry dotted down three times, Sione Malea was powerful in gaining turnovers, and Vilimoni Koroi is developing into a game-changer; in the style of a Jerry Tuwai.

Dylan Collier will actually feel hard done by, as he seemed to score a breathtaking try in the lefthand corner. France had no answers, but will gain some confidence from experiencing a rare Cup finals appearance.

Black Ferns 7s realize dream of NZ Sevens title

The women would meet Canada. Both team’s roads to the finals were similar, with the Canadian women going unbeaten before they came up against a determined New Zealand side.

Boosted by the local support, the Black Ferns 7s were able to withstand the pressure from Ghislaine Landry’s group. They even survived a yellow card to Stacey Fluhler (nee Waaka), but the team introduced considerable talent from the bench, and Fluhler repaid her teammates by scoring a vital, match-winning try.

Claiming the very first NZ Sevens women’s title, the side excelled in all areas. Fluhler was exceptional at the kick restart, to go with her seven tries over the weekend. Blyde had speed to burn from the opening match, and she and her team will be energized by her positive return.

Captain Sarah Hirini told WorldRugby.com “It was the heart and grit that got us over the line, we’ve been training for this for so long to be playing in New Zealand. Canada are amazing but the way that the girls fought to get the ball back in – obviously we’ve got some speedsters to score us some tries as well.”

First Hamilton tournament format questioned

Five matches over two days, that was the reduced format for the NZ Sevens schedule. One game less than usual, which on this occasion, the quarterfinal game was relinquished. Why? This is due to the combined competition for the first time in New Zealand, and the limit of just two days for matches.

Questions have been raised because with only the pool matches played, qualification for the semifinals was given to the top placed teams out of the four men’s teams. In the women’s draw, with just three pools there, it then saw the ‘next best team’ with the highest points scored. Not the usual circumstances, and of concern to many sevens fans.

How can the men’s competition justify only four sides reaching the playoffs? (compared to the usual eight sides) Many consider that diminishes that concept of qualification. Tough on the one team per pool who only loses one match; and often recover and win those knockout games. But with only four teams in a chance to win the Cup, this weekend it did not come off well.

Firstly, Kenya destroyed South Africa 36-14 – the first time in 11 years. And then Argentina did a shoot on Fiji. They shocked the all-powerful Fijians, building a commanding a 21-0 lead that Fiji were unable to respond to. Those matches quite literally took some big names out for the attending fans. Not that sides wouldn’t still earn series points but, not having a Fiji or Blitzbok side in the playoffs ……that removes a big part of the audience interest.

Next weekend, the Sydney 7s will run the same format. Limited to two days, as will the final tournament of Paris. How fans react to this continued mix, where only Dubai, Cape Town and Hong Kong are the only combined events over three days where quarterfinals are still legitimate outcomes.

World Rugby does run the risk of having two grades of tournaments. And whether it results in changes to the schedule, to provide what the fans demand. Including women’s legs of the World Series is commendable, yet if it more often limits the team’s opportunities to compete for the Cup knockout stages, then it might find that ‘some sections’ become disenchanted.

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The NZ Sevens was hot. Maximum temperatures reached, and players must be prepared for the same in Sydney. Then, the men’s series heads to the Northern hemisphere; Los Angeles, before the trip to Vancouver [gladly in a covered stadium]. This variety of conditions is something team management must contend with.

In July, the conditions which players must peak toward is in Japan. Summer in Asia, so over this season – whether consciously or subconsciously – all athletes in teams that are qualified, must look to adapt to the conditions.

Whether Hamilton this weekend is a good comparison or not, the cauldron that is within a rectangle stadium will be the ultimate test.

 

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