Maori women keep Kiwi title streak alive against USA
Aotearoa Maori, an indigenous New Zealand team featuring Maori players, won the Women's Sevens final to keep the Cup at 'home' for the third year running at Hong Kong Stadium.
This wasn't the same all-conquering New Zealand national team that won all before them during the last two Cup competitions here, but a team that is set to go places with their own brand of impressive play.
And yesterday they showed that they were still in a league of their own after defeating USA 14-7 in a hard-fought final. Victory was sweeter as it was the Maori's first-ever foray in an international tournament.
Aotearoa, which means 'land of the long white cloud', clinched the Cup thanks to two tries - one each from Rachel Wikeepa and Honey Hireme with captain Kellie Kiwi adding to the score with two conversions. Before the match, Maori warrior Richard Waiwai performed a 'wero' or challenge to start the proceedings - and it was to prove a good omen.
'Thank God I converted both times,' said a relieved Kiwi after captaining her side to a memorable final. 'We expected a hard, physical game from the US. Both teams had opportunities to score, but blew it on several occasions. Our defence was the key.
'Against the Americans, you can never let your guard down. You always have to step it up against them and you can't afford to get in the comfort zone. They [USA] played with a lot of heart.'
The Americans did come back to put the Maoris under pressure with a try from Ellie Karvoski a minute before time. But time run out for the Americans, who have now lost three straight Hong Kong Cup finals - all against a New Zealand outfit.
USA captain Kerey McCabe was sure that her team would one day prevail against the Southern Hemisphere giants. 'We had some gas in the petrol tank in the end. If the match had gone longer, I think we would have won because they [Maoris] were getting tired towards the end,' said McCabe.
'We had a few fresh players on the field and we were ready to give it a good go towards the end. We still had energy left but we had no time left. On another day, it will be a different outcome.'
The Maoris broke the deadlock in the eighth minute after Annie Brown found Wikeepa who, ran through to score just inside the post. Kiwi duly converted and the Maori captain added to the points again with another conversion after Hireme caught the Americans off-guard with her team's second try.
But the Americans were pushing hard and they were rewarded with a try from Karvoski, who powered over the line after a short sprint. Kristin Baja added the conversion, but with just a minute left on the clock, the Maoris held on for a 14-7 victory.
Maori coach Peter Joseph said the Hong Kong Sevens provided the perfect opportunity to showcase his team's skills.
'We only had one team member who played in last year's final. The team is a lot different from last year's New Zealand team who couldn't come this time because they had to prepare for the World Cup [in Barcelona in April]. That provided the perfect opportunity for us to go out there and win,' said Joseph.
It was the second time the Maori team beat the Americans after winning their semi-final match against them on their way to victory in a tournament in Whangarei in New Zealand in January, although the Americans were a different team.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong were beaten yet again by perennial rivals Kazakhstan 48-7 to finish runners-up in the Plate final. The SAR also lost to the same team in the Asian Championship final 55-0 that ran alongside the main competition.
But Hong Kong captain Natasha McCarroll was hopeful that the SAR would one day 'turn it around' and end their frustration against Kazakhstan, who won the Asian tournament for the third straight year. '[Kazakhstan] are big girls and they really took it to us. We were lacking a bit on experience and this is the third time we ended up as runners-up,' she said.
'It will be rectified next season,' McCarroll promised. 'We have a base of players of 15 and if we hold on to them and keep these girls going, we could improve a lot.
'Kazakhstan have a good group of players who stay with the team consistently. We had two girls who were playing for the first time this year,' McCarroll said.