Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 hot takes: format frustrates, Fiji flop, haka back for All Blacks, Michaela Blyde the best
New Zealand make it a clean sweep at AT&T Stadium in San Francisco, but controversial straight knockout format splits opinion players and coaches
So another edition of the Rugby World Cup Sevens has come and gone, and there were plenty of talking points coming out of San Francisco 2018.
New Zealand were crowned the winners in the men’s and women’s competitions, adding to their title at the Commonwealth Games in what has been a tremendous year,
Here are some of the takeaways from another thrilling weekend of sevens:
Format frustrates in San Fran
Call me old fashioned but I quite like a group stage at a Sevens tournament. If the new format was simply aimed at appeasing American fans, who aren’t used to seeing draws in their sports, then hopefully World Rugby revert to the old ways next time out.
The governing body declared the knockout format a success, and it did create some excitement with Australia sent packing on the opening day.
“It played into the drama of the tournament, World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper said. “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from fans about the drama of knockout. It makes each game exciting. It can be brutal for teams, but sport’s brutal.”
But the format change was less of a hit with the coaches. “I don’t enjoy the format,” New Zealand coach Clark Laidlaw said.
“Ultimately once you’re through the first day, every tournament is straight knockout anyway. So it’s not actually any different from a rugby perspective. As a spectacle I’m sure everyone enjoyed it.
“But when you’ve got coaches and players’ livelihoods at stake, and the format isn’t quite what we’re paid to do … It’s an interesting question.”
England coach Simon Amor also felt the format went against the traditional feel of sevens.
“I don’t think it works in the series,” Amor said. “Because one game on one day is not really the nature of sevens. You need a couple of games. But as a stand-alone one-off event it’s OK.”
“I am not totally sold on the new format to be honest,” England captain Tom Mitchell said. “There are pros and cons to it – it is up to World Rugby to keep mixing things up, keep it fresh and work out things that keep improving the game.”
Having already tasted bitter defeat in the Commonwealth Games final, and missed out on top spot in the Sevens Series to South Africa, San Francisco provided Fiji with one last chance to get a major win in 2018 (other than a fourth title on the bounce in their spiritual homeland Hong Kong, of course).
But Fiji froze again on the big stage, losing to the All Blacks in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup Sevens, and missed out on a medal altogether courtesy of a defeat by the Blitzboks.
Tellingly, there were no Fiji players on the official HSBC Dream Team of the tournament.
Gareth Baber’s side deserve credit for fielding a full strength side in Hong Kong, when most other sides rested players for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, but maybe that decision caught up to them in the end.
Still, it gives Fiji plenty of motivation to come back stronger next season, starting with the World Series opener in Dubai in December, when they can start building towards peaking at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Blyde the beast is best
Top try scorer for the tournament, Michaela Blyde was in scintillating form in San Francisco, crossing nine times including a hat-trick in the final.
Blyde looked almost unstoppable in the gold medal match against France, who were steamrollered 29-0 as New Zealand retained their title, and she was rightly singled out as the Black Ferns’ best performer.
The haka is back
We’ve not been short on seeing the haka in 15s – New Zealand perform it before every test, and it can perhaps rile non-Kiwis – just ask the Scots who can’t indulge in their own tradition of playing bagpipes before a battle.
So it was refreshing to see the All Blacks Sevens and Black Ferns perform the traditional war dance after their triumphs in the men’s and women’s competitions, precisely because the novelty hadn’t worn off.
It would be too much to see the haka before every Sevens match – and these particular celebrations were all the more emotional.
England so close, yet so far
Once again this England team came within a match of winning a major tournament only to be humbled at the last hurdle.
After a Great Britain team made up largely of English players lost in the final of the 2014 Rio Olympics to Fiji, Amor’s side in San Francisco were soundly beaten to gold by New Zealand.
It meant back-to-back Rugby World Cup Sevens final defeats by the Kiwis for England, who were thrashed 33-0 in 2013 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Russia.
They’ve been runners-up on the World Sevens Series four times, and third-place finishers five times, but have never won the title in 18 attempts.
The Commonwealth Games has no provided a happy hunting ground either – they finished with bronze medals earlier this summer in Australia, their best finish.
Can England make the breakthrough or will they forever have to settle for second or third place being the best they can hope for?
USA! USA! USA!
So the United States didn’t win on home soil like they had been hoping to do – but they still made an impact that could further establish the game there.
Perry Baker and Carlin Isles stepped up as expected, scoring some flashy tries that thrilled the crowd at AT&T Stadium.
The US keep knocking on the door and you imagine one day that breakthrough will come.