Rugby Sevens: New Zealand women, men begin defence of world series crowns at Dubai

Black Ferns Sevens have stumbled through the first challenge to their World Rugby sevens crown, barely overcoming South Africa 19-14 in their opening pool match at Dubai.

Without veterans Ruby Tui, Tyla Nathan-Wong and Michaela Blyde, New Zealand were far from their polished best against a team returning to the series as fulltimers after a length absence.

The Ferns won the opening kickoff, but were trapped deep in their own territory by handling errors. When they eventually turned the ball over, Nadine Roos put South Africa ahead with a converted try.

Sarah Hirini in action for the Black Ferns Sevens.
Sarah Hirini in action for the Black Ferns Sevens. Photo credit: Photosport

With their next possession, a wide pass put Mahina Paul into space for a long range try, but the missed conversion left them trailling. When Jorga Miller spilled a pass on attack, Maria Tshiremba broke away to give South Africa a 14-5 halftime advantage.

The NZ women had only conceded halftime leads only three times during their 2022/23 campaign, winning twice, but needed two scores make up this deficit.

They were just as hesitant to start the second half, but were gifted a numerical edge, when Tshiremba was yellow-carded for obstruction, and Jazmin Felix-Hotham took full toll to bring her team within two points.

Portia Woodman-Wickliffe seemed to have the winning try in her sights, but dropped the final pass cold, as South Africa surged onto attack and threatened to clinch the upset. On their own line, New Zealand forced the turnover, captain Sarah Hirini took a quick tap and stayed in support to scamper away for victory.

They were marginally better in their second outing against Great Britain, taking the early lead with Woodman-Wickliffe scoring her 230th try on the world circuit to put New Zealand ahead.

The Brits drew level through a converted try from Jasmine Joyce, but five-pointers to Stacey Waaka and Alena Saili either side of halfway put the champions in firm control. Blyde returned from her one-game respite to score the next and then had another, after Waaka skilfully won the kickoff.

The floodgates opened, with Miller and Paul also crossing before the final siren, as the Ferns prevailed 43-7, but they suffered a potentially huge loss, when Hirini stayed down at the end, clutching a knee. The skipper was eventually able to hobble off the field on her own steam.

Meanwhile, the All Blacks Sevens also showed some cobwebs, before edging past Canada 26-21.

Scott Curry scored for the Kiwis in the opening minutes, but the North Americans took the lead with a converted try to Josiah Morra.

Akuila Rokolisoa found a midfield gap to cross between the posts for New Zealand, before Jake Thiel ran a hard line from deep inside Canadian territory and ran the length of the field to give them a 14-12 halftime lead.

They took advantage of a penalty and attempted lineout maul to put Matt Oworu, and the NZ men - like their women - were staring down the barrell of an upset defeat. From the kickoff, Moses Leo put Curry clear for his second try.

Scott Curry in action for All Blacks Sevens.
Scott Curry in action for All Blacks Sevens. Photo credit: Photosport

When Canada dropped the ball cold in midfield, Fehi Fineanganofo pounced and received a return pass from Tepaea Cook-Savage for the go-ahead try.

Canada suffered three early injuries and were reduced to six players over the final moments, allowing the All Blacks Sevens to close out the contest.

"It was our first game," reflected new coach Tomasi Cama. "We prepared well this morning, but no excuses.

"We have to start somewhere."

New Zealand will next face Samoa in their pool, after the Pacific Islanders lost 22-14 to South Africa.

Black Ferns Sevens 19 (Paul, Felix-Hotham & Hirini tries; Pouri-Lane 2 conversions) South Africa 14 (Roos & Shiremba tries; Roos 2 conversions)

All Blacks Sevens 26 (Curry 2, Rokolisoa & Fineanganofo tries; Cook-Savea 2 & Rokolisoa conversions) Canada 21 (Morra, Thiel & Oworu tries; Coast 3 conversions)

Black Ferns Sevens 43 (Blyde 2, Woodman-Wickliffe, Waaka, Saili, Miller & Paul tries; Pouri-Lane 2 & Willison 2 conversions) Great Britain 7 (Joyce try; Norman-Bell conversion)