New Zealand confirmed another World Series title – but the interest in Toulouse was all about who would take the Series' final Olympic place.
New Zealand wrapped their seventh World Series (in ten attempts) this weekend in Toulouse. They only needed to reach the quarter-finals to achieve the feat – something they have never failed to do – and they made sure of that before the end of day 1 with wins over Poland and the USA. Only the Americans gave them pause for thought in the pool stages, which previewed the final two days later.
But the weekend was really all about the fourth Olympic qualifying spot, with three teams starting the weekend neck-and-neck.
Ireland were narrowly ahead in the series, but two poor outcomes in the previous two rounds had opened the door to Fiji and Great Britain, and with Fiji having a massively better points difference over the series Ireland had to finish ahead of them.
And what a ride it was.
Day one saw all Fiji and Great Britain end unbeaten with quarter-final places assured. Ireland’s poor showing last time out gave them the toughest pool, but they shrugged off their French hosts in their opening game and led Australia at halftime before going down to 23 unanswered Australian points in the second period.
Day two opened with Fiji sneaking a win against Great Britain to take primacy in Pool C, while Ireland wrapped up their spot in the last eight with a strong win against Brazil.
This outcome was expected to result in a quarter against GB, but then France surprised everyone with an unexpected win over Australia which pushed the Irish into third in Pool B by an agonising two points in relative points difference.
This shook up the quarter-final pairings, pitting the Irish against Australia, Fiji again the USA and Great Britain against France.
A win for any of the three promised a place at Paris 2024, if the other two lost. Ireland fell to Australia first and then had to watch and hope that Fiji and GB would also miss out.
Fiji battled hard against the USA, but the Americans always held the advantage, and two late Fijian tries could not reel them in.
That left Great Britain, who led France for most of the first half after a first minute score from Isla Norman-Bell. But Irish (and Fijian) anxiety was put to rest as France found another gear to score twice before the break and twice more in the second half.
That result ended Great Britain’s hopes as, short of some remarkable results, they could not now catch their rivals.
But it did set up a 5th/8th semi-final between Ireland and Fiji at the start of Day 3 which now became a winner-takes-all Olympic qualifier.
In a match that could not be more tense, Ireland first took the lead from Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe, but a try from Ilisapeci Delaiwau levelled the scores, Fiji missing a relatively easy conversion. Murphy Crowe scored again just before break and Ireland lead 10-5 at the turnaround. The second half was battle royal, but with no more score Irish joy was unconfined at the end. They were going to the Olympics for the first time.
The rest of the day could have ended in anti-climax but for an magnificent final where the USA lead New Zealand 14-0 into the final play of the half, when Stacey Waaka finally got her team on the board, but the USA still led 14-5 at the break. Jazmin Felix-Hotham scored early on to close the gap to two points before a second Waaka try won the tournament for the Ferns.
Looking at the series at as whole, another New Zealand title rarely looked in doubt after the second or third round. Once upon a time the Ferns used to show some fragility in the pool stages, but even that is no longer the case and they seemed to play on another level from their opponents.
The other two podium places were also always going to be a fight between Australia and the USA, with Australia just doing enough to end runners up despite this weekend.
The gap between these three and the rest has grown since last year. France ended fourth, but never looked like challenging for a higher place. Ireland, Fiji and Great Britain had their moments but all three were far too inconsistent over the year, both between and within tournaments. However, Great Britain in their first full year showed significant improvements after a difficult start and may challenge for the “best in Europe” next year.
For the rest, Japan put in a best ever performance by an Asian team, Canadian rebuilding stuttered – 10th place this weekend suggests that a lot of work remains to be done – while Spain and Brazil will be thankful that there was no relegation this year as they (and newcomers South Africa) will almost certainly be in the mix for that when the new structure comes in next year.
Olympic Qualification process
Five of the 12 Olympic spots are now taken - France (hosts), New Zealand, Australia, USA and Ireland. Six more places will go to the winners of regional tournaments over the next few months, and the final place will be decided at a worldwide repechage probably early next year.
Europe: 25–27 June, Krakow
North America: 19-20 August, Langford
Africa: 14-15 October, Tunisia
Oceania: Scheduled for November, venue TBA
Asia: 3-leg series, autumn
South America: 17-18 June, Montevideo
Pool A: Canada 19-26 United States; New Zealand 50-0 Poland; Canada 35-7 Poland; New Zealand 31-12 United States; United States 31-0 Poland; New Zealand 28-7 Canada
Pool B: France 7-27 Ireland; Australia 52-0 Brazil; France 43-0 Brazil; Australia 33-12 Ireland; Ireland 36-7 Brazil; Australia 12-19 France
Pool C: Fiji 47-7 Spain; Great Britain 19-12 Japan; Fiji 26-14 Japan; Great Britain 33-12 Spain; Spain 5-33 Japan; Great Britain 17-19 Fiji
9th-12th Place Semi-Finals: Canada 26-17 Brazil; Semi-Final Spain 41-7 Poland
Quarter-Finals: Australia 17-7 Ireland; Fiji 17-22 United States; France 28-10 Great Britain; New Zealand 29-7 Japan
5th-8th Place Semi Finals: Ireland 10-5 Fiji; Great Britain 5-14 Japan
Semi-Finals Australia 7-10 United States; France 7-31 New Zealand
11th Place: Brazil 7-19 Poland
9th Place: Canada 14-15 Spain
7th Place: Fiji 17-22 Great Britain
5th Place: Ireland 0-14 Japan
3rd Place: Australia 33-7 France
Final United States 14-19 New Zealand
Final series standings