Samoa blow away the opposition
A tournament which began with fears about the air quality ended in Samoa taking the breath away with a wondrous come-from-behind performance to defeat New Zealand 24-21 in the Cup championship at the Cathay Pacific/Credit Suisse Hong Kong Sevens last night.
It was Samoa's third IRB Sevens World Series title in a row and gave them the lead for the first time in the 11-year history of the competition. With two legs remaining in England and Scotland, Samoa are on top of the standings on 124 points with the Kiwis trailing by three points.
Try-scoring machine Mikaele Pesamino not only created a record - taking his overall tally this season to 47 - but his last two tries sealed a superb win for his country.
Samoa piled on 24 unanswered points either side of half-time to overturn an early 14-0 deficit, with Pesamino claiming two of the four tries. It was no surprise that he was named Best and Fairest Player at the players' dinner last night.
'It's indescribable, winning three tournaments in a row,' said happy Samoan coach Stephen Betham. 'We have never done that and now we are in the lead, too. But there is still a lot to play for. Our goal is to win the IRB Series for the first time and we will give it a go.'
Things looked bleak for Samoa when trailing 14-0 - both tries scored by the quicksilver Kurt Baker - and they lost skipper Uale Mai to the sin-bin for an off-the-ball fracas.
But New Zealand failed to take advantage and to their horror saw Baker yellow-carded for a late tackle. With both teams down to six men, it was Samoa who benefited with powerful forward Simaika Mikaele grabbing a brace to go into half-time trailing by just two points, 14-12.
'I sent a message to the guys that as long as we got points before half-time we were still in with a chance, and just to keep their cool. Twenty minutes is a long time and I take my hat off to them, ' said Betham. Samoa will take home prize money of US$100,000.
Pesamino, who in 2007 led Samoa to the Cup title with a hat-trick, showed the filled-to-capacity Hong Kong Stadium was his favourite hunting ground as he collected a brace after the break. It was the fifth time this season that the Kiwis had lost to Samoa.
'A few 50-50s didn't go our way,' said disappointed New Zealand captain DJ Forbes. 'I don't know what it is. When you are playing the same team time and time again, they seem to find a rhythm. We have to find a way to get on the other side of them.
'Full credit to them, but we are still in the hunt for the World Series and this is our ultimate goal. We have got to front up at the next two tournaments,' added Forbes.
New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens blamed lapses of concentration and the fact his team failed to keep their composure when leading.
'Our sin-bin killed us. We didn't take advantage of their player being in the bin while they did just before half-time,' Tietjens said. 'It is Samoa's night.'
Baker, who was in superb touch early in the game, returned from the bin and looked a changed player. He dropped passes and got a case of the butter-fingers. Twice he was put in space, but couldn't quite provide the finishing touches.
'We made too many mistakes,' said Tietjens. 'It is a worry losing so many times to Samoa. But in my mind, these games were winnable. We could have won it in Adelaide, and here too. We are not nailing it when we should be. We should be a bit more composed.'
Samoa swept into the Cup final with a 24-7 win over the US in the quarter-finals and a 28-24 victory over England.
'Every time we come to Hong Kong it feels like it is England's week. But it didn't quite work for us,' said disappointed England coach Ben Ryan, who is still seeking his first win in four visits here.
England had knocked out Australia in the quarter-finals in a match where the fortunes swung to and fro. The scores were tied 19-19 before England sealed the result by stealing an Australian line-out for Tom Powell to score. Samoa, however, were in a different class.
On the other side of the draw, New Zealand knocked out Kenya 21-12 to meet Fiji who had seen off South Africa in a tight battle, squeezing through 14-12. But the semi-final was dominated by one man, New Zealand's Baker, whose deceptive running saw him grab four tries as the Kiwis overcame Fiji 33-28. But New Zealand's jinx team were waiting.
'We didn't play as well as we could have on the first two days, but then I guess what matters, is to keep winning, no matter how it comes,' said Betham. 'We still have two to go, but we will enjoy this win for now.'
And with top gun Pesamino firing, Samoa just took the breath away.