Unstoppable Fiji take World 7s crown



Relief more than celebration oozed around the Fiji camp when the final whistle blew on their mammoth 33-14 victory over HSBC Series rivals USA in the Paris 7s semi-finals to give the Fiji Airways Fiji team their fourth world crown and the first since 2016.

Isoa Tabu, in for the injured Waisea Nacuqu, touched down for his first ever try for Fiji to wrap up this enthralling encounter and ensure that Gareth Baber’s team could not be caught in the race for the world title.

And though the Paris Final against New Zealand had yet to be completed, it was job extremely well done for Baber, Tuwai, Botitu, Tuimaba, Derenalagi… and indeed all of the Fiji boys who laid their bodies and souls on the line for their team, their village, their vanua and their country.

I suspect that even those observers partial towards other teams would agree that Fiji are the most exciting, most entertaining and most skillful team on the circuit, nay, the planet. But underpinning this HSBC 7s Series triumph is pure hard work, commitment and sacrifice.

Supreme fitness coupled with a sheer determination to defend to the end has seen this team grow and mature in 12 short months to win five of the last nine tournaments, and 10 of the last 17.

The immense disappointment of missing out here last year – despite winning five of the final seven events and beating eventual champions South Africa five times on the trot – served as a learning curve. Fiji can now continue to build with this talented squad towards next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

At the end of the day, Fiji met New Zealand in a gold medal match for the first time since 2016, and won comprehensively. Though the score looks relatively close at 35-24, it was 35-5 with five minutes to play before Meli Derenalagi was rather harshly sin binned for trying to catch a ball that was going over his head. It was ruled as a deliberate knock-on – fortunately the job had already been done and dusted by that time.

It wasn’t essential that Fiji won the final, just very fitting. And, besides, it meant we weren’t subjected to one of those shirtless hakas.

Thirty seconds was all that was needed to get Fiji on the scoreboard – Sevuloni Mocenacagi looping around the Kiwi masses and finding the young Napolioni Ratu charging through the middle.
The Yasawa player started as palymaker ahead of Vilimoni Botitu and was later named HSBC Player of the Final.

Derenalagi grabbed the second score, being the quickest to react to a Kiwi spillage as New Zealand skipper Scott Curry continued a long-held national tradition of complaining to the referee.

Down 0-14, the Kiwis upped the ante, pressing high and swarming the Fiji ball carriers. So big Josua Vakurunabili decided to have a go at the opposition line and in doing so sucked in two defenders to give Aminiasi Tuimaba space on the inside channel to score.

Four minutes into the final, and Fiji were 21-0 ahead. From 28-7 at half-time, it was soon 35-7 and game over.

Skipper Paula Dranisinukula later spoke of what was said at half-time: “In the huddle I just said to the boys, ‘If you want to be a history-maker then don’t let this moment go and pass you – give it your all’.” 

“I’m so proud of the boys. They have been working so hard throughout the Series and they have been paid back for that hard work. I told the boys to enjoy this moment. Jerry Tuwai – we are so blessed having him with us. He is a motivator – a small man with a big heart. We are so lucky to have him on board. We have such a talented young team.”

Earlier, in the crucial semi-final, the pressure of the Paris occasion fell onto the USA team more than the Fijians, just as it had done in London a week ago.

Speedster Carlin Isles dropped two balls in the opening few minutes and Kevon Williams stumbled as Fiji raced off to a 12-0 lead through Derenalagi and the long-striding Mocenacagi, whose big hand-offs on the way to the line from his own half are worthy of mention.

Kiwi referee Richard Kelly then waved his little yellow card at Tuwai after a failed attempt at an intercept, and this should have let the Americans in. With an extra man out wide, Isles charged over the try-line but got too ambitious in getting closer to the uprights and the attention from Derenalagi forced him over the dead ball line before he could touch down. Unforgiveable.

The microphone didn’t pick up US coach Mike Friday’s comments at that time, but we can all imagine what they were.

Isles did get his try before Tuwai returned to the field, scampering over from the base of a ruck. However, he picked up an injury in the process and left the field.

The third try, more than a minute into first-half injury-time, summed up Fiji’s superiority. Vakurunabili appeared to be hemmed in by the touchline on halfway but produced a delightful offload behind his back to Tuwai, who jumped past Danny Barrett and sprinted 50 metres to the posts.

Coach Friday’s half-time talk was a passionate plea to his players to get the ball and get stuck in. Against Kenya earlier in the day when they also trailed, he was much calmer and measured in his address.

But their second half began badly when skipper Madison Hughes flunked the kick-off. A minute later, Botitu read Hughes’s pass from the scrum with a perfectly timed interception for another seven pointer. And at 26-7 with five minutes remaining, Fiji were nearly home.

Williams did manage a second try for the USA team when Tuwai’s back flick found the hands of the grateful Perry Baker, who was another of the American stars a teeny bit overawed by the occasion.

So when the octopus arms of Derenalagi stole the ball from Ben Pinkelman in his own 22, popped it up for the fresh-legged Alasio Naduva to charge away, none of the Americans chased back. They were spent, and knew that time was up on their most gallant Series challenge yet.

Naduva then waited under the posts for Tuwai and Tuimaba to join him before giving the ball to Tabu to place onto the grass. Relief for Fiji, despair for the USA.

Coach Baber paid tribute to everyone involved in the year-long campaign. “I think that the back end of the season, carrying on from Hong Kong with Singapore, London last week and to finish it off as we did, is pretty special.”

“It’s all credit to everybody back home in Fiji, everybody who has supported us and stayed patient but most of all to the staff and the quality outfit that we have playing for us.” 

In the quarter-finals, Fiji showed a few early morning nerves when taking on hosts France and trailed 5-0 at the interval. But a calm and measured half-time talk from the coach seemed to settle the boys and the second half was back to business as usual with 24 unanswered points.

“You don’t have to hit it out of the park straight away,” Baber told his players. “You’ve got to claim the ball and go through the phases. Wear them down; then we bring the subs on and pick up the tempo.”

Two of the second half replacements – Asaeli Tuivuaka and Naduva – scored tries, with the ever-present Botitu and Tuimaba also grabbing one each.

The US Eagles then followed Fiji onto the Paris turf to take on a resurgent Kenya, who were playing in their first quarter-final of the season and on a high after securing their core status for 2019-20. Mike Friday’s team needed to win to keep the Series alive.

Kenya caught the Americans a bit cold and charged to a 14-0 lead with Isles feeling the pressure with a couple of crucial mistakes. And the African side could well have turned the screw tighter but were also guilty of unforced errors.

The reliable duo of Ben Pinkelman and Steve Tomasin teamed up to pull one try back on the stroke of half-time; and after another important team talk at the break from coach Friday, the USA finished the job with 21 more unanswered points.

The Englishman told his players to take a moment to gather composure then reminded them: “Let’s not get anxious because you’ll get caught up in the moment. They’ve had a good start. But you’re in control of your own destiny; one possession at a time. This is about upping the pace of the game and working on our support lines.”

The plan worked out for them in that quarter-final match, but when it really mattered against Fiji, they couldn’t repeat their feat.

by Jeremy Duxbury

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