Joy and agony: Mighty Fijians’ killer instinct kicks in to seal Hong Kong Sevens title - again
Defending champions play their own game to secure coveted trophy and bragging rights after New Zealand appear drained in Cup final after exhausting semi that saw them endure extra time
You had the feeling all along that the Fijians were slowly building their momentum, unconcerned with what was happening on the other side of the draw at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, or even at times on the other side of the field.
It was all about focusing on the style of game that has cemented the Fijians as the standard bearers when it comes to sevens – backing their natural instincts and, come what may, quite simply making sure they scored more points than anyone else.
“We play our own game and we will always play our own game,” was how coach Ben Ryan set out the lay of the land beforehand.
Once again it worked a treat as Fiji turned on the power in the second half for a 21-7 victory over a New Zealand team that surely must have been hindered – however slightly – by an exhausting semi-final that went into extra time.
That is not an excuse for the Kiwis – coach Gordon Tietjens has never been a man to offer those – more a simple statement of fact.
The sense was the Fijians knew, after watching the Kiwis eventually win 12-7 over South Africa, that they might tire.
And they were there, set and ready to pounce if (and when) the Kiwis did. It was tied at 7-7 at the half and Fiji’s two second-half tries stand as a testament to all that is great about their game.
They draw their opponents in, like bees to honey when they have the ball in their hands, then they throw it here, there and more often than not into the hands of a teammate who has space to run.
For victorious coach Ben Ryan, it was the ninth time he had taken Fiji to a final since he took charge of the team in 2013, and it was the ninth time they had won a title. It was the second consecutive Hong Kong Sevens and their 16th overall.
“It was a tight final and I thought our defence was very good,” said Ryan. “I think we made the right decisions at the breakdown. I don’t think they were ever going to stop us scoring tries.
“We went through the gears pretty well. A last-second win against Canada, we were pushed against the Kenyans this morning and then as soon as we got that win it all came together. Against Australia (a 34-5 semi-final win), it was an almost flawless performance. At that moment, I thought we’ve got the momentum to win here.”
Ryan paid tribute to captain Osea Kolinisau, named best and fairest player of the tournament, and to the recalled Semi Kunatani, who put the icing on the cake with the last try.
Ryan said Fiji’s recent woes – including the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winton in February – were on their minds, but this is a team that focuses fully on the field when the time comes.
“When Fiji run on the field in Hong Kong I think you can write a list of the reasons why they want to win,” said Ryan.
“The country has had a tough time. Rugby seems insignificant when lives are lost and shattered. People back home will be incredibly happy.
“I don’t think many will be going to work tomorrow and good on them. We’ll all enjoy tonight.”
The only sour point for the Fijians was the news that had trickled out during the day that the Hong Kong Rugby Union had decided there would be no prize money on offer here any more.
It had previously been US$150,000 to the winners, no small amount for the Fijians, few of whom are professional players.
Ryan, as ever, took the diplomatic approach when asked how it might affect celebrations on Sunday night, but it would be wrong to think it wouldn’t tinge the achievement with some sense of disappointment.
“I don’t think they even know yet,” he said, as his players did their victory lap. “Hong Kong is always going to be unique.
“The boys don’t play for prize money, but they also don’t come from wealthy backgrounds, so it would have made a big difference. I am sure they have good reasons for doing it.”
The HKRU put the move down to increased expenditure in the domestic game, including the introduction of a full-time professional 15s programme.
New Zealand had come into the final battered and bruised after that semi-final. They’d already lost inspirational captain Tim Mikkelson to injury on Friday night.
“I’m proud of the guys and how they played,” said Gordon Tietjens. “It was a crazy semi-final, but let’s not look for excuses. Fiji just played better than us.”
The positives were plenty with the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series still well and truly alive. Heading to Singapore this coming weekend, Fiji lead on 128 points from the Kiwis on 123 and South Africa, who finished third, next on 122.
Two of the players Tietjens brought to Hong Kong with an eye on the Olympics in August – code-jumping star Sonny Bill Williams and Pita Ahki – got better as the tournament progressed.
“They’re finding their feet quickly and that looks good going ahead. You learn from these losses,” said Tietjens.
The final brought a fitting end to a weekend that set new standards for a tournament that remains the envy of the sevens world.
The Rio Olympics are hoping to emulate the successes seen here – and the presence of a few 15s stars looking to go for gold in Brazil certainly added to the Hong Kong experience.
As did the entertainment this year. The choice of David Hasselhoff as sevens ambassador raised eyebrows initially, but the American rose to the occasion, bringing the right blend of Hollywood kitch and pure entertainment to the party.
He’ll be a hard act to follow – as the event always seems to be itself.