RIO DE JANEIRO — New Zealand narrowly avoided a major upset against the United States on Sunday to join Australia, Canada and Britain in the playoffs for the first rugby sevens medals awarded at the Olympics.
The semifinal pairings suggest the status quo in women’s sevens was maintained throughout the tournament, although the route to the playoffs was anything but routine.
World sevens series champion Australia rebounded from a surprising 12-12 draw with the United States in the last game of the pool stage to trounce Spain 24-0 and set up a semifinal match against Canada, which rallied to beat France 15-5 in the quarterfinals after dropping its last pool match to Britain.
The British advanced 26-7 over Fiji and then watched as semifinal opponent New Zealand struggled to put away the Americans 5-0 in the last of the quarterfinals.
If anything, the top three teams from the sevens world series appeared more vulnerable than Britain, a team containing 11 members of the England team which placed fourth in the world series. The British won all three group games comfortably, including a 24-0 victory over Canada, and outscored Fiji four tries to one.
The Americans pushed both leading contenders for the gold medal in back-to-back matches on the second day of competition but will have to settle for playing in classification matches for 5th-8th places along with the other quarterfinal losers.
The U.S. and New Zealand squads played practice matches against each other in Florida leading up to the Olympics, and the Americans obviously picked up some intel.
Portia Woodman scored the only try. “They didn’t play us this hard in Florida! It was a nice surprise, and hard,” Woodman said. “We made it hard for ourselves, not playing to our strengths, getting a bit too ahead of ourselves, and wanting to score on the first phase when we needed to play three or four.
“But we’re in medal contention, so (we’re) excited.”
It was the pace of Woodman, the leading try-scorer in the world series last season, which made the difference on the last play of the first half, after the Americans had knocked-on in their own territory. The New Zealanders took the scrum and spread the ball wide, where Woodman burned off the defenders to post her sixth try of the Olympics.
The Americans had a scoring opportunity shut down with three minutes to go when winger Jessica Jevelet was tackled late as she attempted to chase a kick into the in-goal that could have leveled the game. Tylia Nathan-Wong was yellow carded and sent from the field for two minutes. But the New Zealanders survived unscathed with a player short until Nathan-Wong returned with 22 seconds remaining.
Jevelet had scored two tries against Australia earlier in the afternoon, when the Americans led 12-5 until the last minute when Emma Tonegato scored near the posts and Chloe Dalton kicked the equalizing conversion after the full-time siren.
Tonegato scored the first try of the quarterfinal against Spain, and Charlotte Caslick added two more tries as Australia returned to its more dominating form.
The semifinals will be held on Monday, August 8:
Women’s Rugby Semifinals
Australia vs. Canada (1:30 p.m. ET)
Great Britain vs. New Zealand (2:00 p.m. ET)
The U.S. women will play Fiji on Monday at 1:00 p.m. ET to determine their final Olympic ranking. They can finish anywhere from fifth to eighth.