Fiji upsets Canada, Black Ferns fend off Brits in women’s 7s

TOKYO (AP) — Reputations and rankings meant nothing when Fiji upset Canada and Britain raced to a 21-point lead against New Zealand on Day 1 of the Olympic women’s rugby sevens competition.

The lack of international competition during the COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty for every team.

A night after Fiji’s men clinched back-to-back Olympic golds, the Pacific island nation’s women’s team shocked Canada 26-12. Fiji piled on 21 points before the 2016 bronze medalists could respond.

The British women took an equally unexpected lead with three quick tries against New Zealand, but the Black Ferns responding like competition favorites should and rallied for a 26-21 victory.

Three tries to winger Michaela Blyde and one to Tyla Nathan-Wong quickly restored order and New Zealand finished Thursday atop Pool A.

“It was our mistakes that kept them in the game. When you don’t have the ball, you can’t score,” Nathan-Wong said. “That’s something we will clean up going into tomorrow. We know what it is, it’s not something we’re trying to guess: ‘Oh my gosh, what happened here?’

“I was like, ‘We’re still in this.’ I never felt truly out of the game.”

New Zealand has won just about everything there is to win in women’s rugby sevens since their disappointing loss to Australia in the Olympic final at Rio de Janeiro five years ago.

They started the tournament with an aura of invincibility but, after a 29-7 opening win over Kenya, that was seriously tested.

In the morning session, Britain edged the Russian team with Abbie Brown scoring long after the full-time siren sounded to even the score and Holly Aitchison converting for a comeback 14-12 win.

That was against a team in its Olympic debut. Against the highest-rated team in the sport, the British women had early control of the game.

“New Zealand are the best team in the world and we absolutely rattled them in the first and second half,” British player Jasmine Joyce said. “We just slipped off a bit in the second half.

“But to be leading 21-0 at halftime … to do that to the world champions, who have been together for five, six-plus years, we can only take positives.”

While the bronze and silver medalists from 2016 either lost or had close calls, defending champion Australia opened with a 48-0 win over Japan and a 26-10 win against China. The U.S. women also posted back-to-back wins over China and Japan, in contrasting fashion, to qualify for the quarterfinals.

The Chinese women made an impressive Olympic debut, scoring early points against the United States before losing 28-14, and also against Australia.

U.S. coach Chris Brown said he could understand having a little rust in the opening match against China, but was far from happy with the 17-7 win over Japan in the night session.

“We got the results where we’re through to the quarters, which is great, but we’re pretty frustrated with the performance we just put out there,” Brown said. “Some of our squad got opportunities to really do their job, which was to score tries, to go out there physically, and they held back for the first seven minutes.”

The U.S. will play Australia on Wednesday to determine top spot in Pool C.

New Zealand leads Pool A over the Russian team and Britain, and France leads Pool B following a wins over Fiji (12-5) and Brazil (40-5). The top two teams in each group and the two best third-place teams will advance to quarterfinals on Friday night.

The group placings will be decided in the morning session, when the French face a Canadian lineup desperate to get back on track.

Canada started slowly before beating Brazil 33-0 but never really got going against Fiji.

The Canadian squad lost a month of practice in May because of a COVID-19 outbreak and have had an unsettling coaching overhaul after John Tait stepped down in April following an independent review of his five-year tenure.

Mick Byrne, a former assistant coach with Australia’s national men’s team who replaced Tait, said he was confident Canada could come back quickly.

“They’ve been through some adversity. The last few months, we had half our team out with COVID … we struggled through that, recovered. But we dealt with it,” he said. “We’ll recover from that (upset) today. Regroup. We’ll come ready to go in the morning.”

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