The first day of Sydney Sevens, the third tournament of this World Series was a tight one.
Pools were evenly poised, with two teams winning their first two starts, and New Zealand the only unbeaten side at the end of play.
Australia came in as defending champions of the Sydney tournament last year, in that dominating run where they didn’t concede a single point.
It has been a full year, with both a World Cup and Commonwealth Games since then and while the Australians are a medal chance, they haven’t beaten New Zealand or won a tournament in that time.
There were a few slow starts from sides, perhaps a sign of how a cool change was unexpected for players who’d trained in stifling heat this week.
It started raining midway through play, in which some sides blossomed through the drizzling afternoon, while others struggled to maintain momentum and possession.
Russia and Ireland played out a draw, and two late tries for Fiji weren’t enough against the six Canada piled on as Pool B emerged as the most interesting and tightly contested. Ireland went on to beat both Canada and Fiji, while Canada, the Dubai runners up also lost to Russia.
Canada captain Ghislaine Landry was disappointed with the losses, but could pinpoint where things went awry, and it wasn’t the weather.
“We started really well, it’s just a mindset thing. I think we got a bit ahead of ourselves and we lost track of where we were in the moment.”
Landry also paid tribute to the challenge and the joy of a competition that continues to tighten.
“It’s a testament to women’s rugby right now - it’s growing so much and every tournament is just getting that much harder. It makes it more challenging for sure, but it’s great for all the teams and for the sport in general.”
In Pool A the closest contest was between France and England and even that had two tries in it, while the New Zealand side scored with ease to cruise into quarter-finals.
New Zealand’s Ruby Tui pointed to respect for opposition and continued analysis as the key to maintaining their levels, even as it’s now quite lonely at the top.
“We have to respect every team. Like Papua New Guinea, some people might write them off, we are never ever gonna write them off because we know what they’re capable of. They scored an amazing try out there pretty early on. And I think, if you think any game is going to be easy, that’s where you go wrong.”
Tui was surprised by the change in conditions, but as untroubled and happy as the rest of her side.
“We had everyone telling us it was going to be really hot. It’s colder than [at] home. It was actually pretty funny. We don’t mind, as far as we’re concerned we’ve had World Cups and huge pinnacle events in the rain, so you’ve got to be used to anything and everything.”
Pool C saw a three way tie at the top of the ladder after Spain beat the USA, Australia beat Spain and the USA beat Australia.
Evania Pelite had a too prescient view of the contest after Spain's upset win over the USA.
"It’s always hard playing a team that’s just lost, because you know they want to come out and bounce back from that. We can’t underestimate them after that match at all."
And bounce back they did, scoring three tries in the first half and holding off a late surge to win 19-12.
Australian captain Sharni Williams was disappointed with the loss, but pleased the side was able to finish strong with two tries in the second half.
“We know we’ve got it in us, sevens is the game of the unknown, the time on that clock is nothing for the players. You can deliver something, you can create something.”
Williams watched the Americans take advantage of greasy conditions, and knows the Australian side can learn from that.
“That slippery watermelon seed sort of ball, we’ve gotta be able to look after it, and we weren’t doing that in those conditions. We’ve got to obviously get a lot tighter and really trust each other.”
Australian coach John Manenti wasn’t too disappointed with the loss, impressed with the courage of his side.
“Obviously you want to win every game of footy you play but there’s always good lessons when you don’t win.”
Manenti appeared unprepared for the cool change, and what was driving rain in the early evening games.
“We put a fair few plans around playing in the hot and dry weather and obviously that never eventuated.”
The best tries of the day weren’t from winning sides, but rather China’s Liu Xiaoqian doing first damage against the US, and Papua New Guinea’s Fatima Rama whose leap into a try was as artful as her burning Michaela Blyde down the wing at her age (38) was audacious.
Day two of play sees quarterfinal action and the chance of more rain. It will be interesting to see who that favours.