New Zealand sneak past South Africa after some Sonny Bill Williams magic
It was villain to hero for Sonny Bill Williams, as New Zealand finished day one of the Wellington Sevens unbeaten.
Williams looked to have lost the team their final Pool A match, against South Africa, after a bad offload a minute from fulltime. From 12-7 up, New Zealand were suddenly 14-12 down with time virtually up.
But Williams rolled the dice one last time, producing the pass that saw Joe Webber score under the bar and secure the defending champions a 19-14 win and, with it, top-spot in their pool and a quarterfinal clash with Kenya on Sunday.
"To win that game at the death was tremendous, really," New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens said.
It was a victory Tietjens said was built on character and resilience and heart and those are traits he looks hard for when it comes to selecting players. Williams can be over-hyped but his performance at the death showed there's some substance behind the muscles and smiling face.
"He was probably kicking himself because he'd done an offload and sometimes the offloads in sevens can be the undoing of you, but then they can also be the winning of the game," said Tietjens.
"He'd just done one prior to that and I thought that was too late, that was our game, game over. But a great fightback and something magic like that can win you games and win you tournaments and all credit to him.
"You can certainly drop your head and certainly drop in performance, lose focus but no, no. He had his next job on and he did what we needed, which was a beautiful offload to Joe Webber at the death."
New Zealand wouldn't have even been in contention to win without the barnstorming running of Akira Ioane. He scored one long-range try and created another for Sam Dickson, as part of a dominant display.
Dickson was very good, as was Kurt Baker. Augustine Pulu gifted South Africa a 7-0 lead with a bad lineout over-throw, but bounced back well too.
Earlier in the day, the star turn in the 27-7 win over Scotland was probably Rieko Ioane. He and Gillies Kaka scored first-half tries as New Zealand pushed out to 1-0 lead. Second half tries to Sam Dickson, Joe Webber and Ardie Savea ensured a comfortable victory for the hosts.
"The boys are really sticking to the patterns and the new boys are gelling quite nicely...Sonny, Ardie, they're all having huge impacts on the game," Rieko Ioane said.
"If we stick to the structures we've found in these last two games that they work, so if we keep sticking with it we'll be good."
So will getting the ball to either Ioane at every possible opportunity.
"I've been going all right and doing my bit where I can. I've just been sitting on the wing. I hope to do a bit more work later on and try and get in the middle a bit of a rest," Rieko Ioane said.
"But I've been happy with my progress so far and hopefully it continues."
All eyes on day one had been on Williams, though, and the rugby and league superstar marked his debut in sevens by scoring the team's final try in a 38-7 win over Russia.
Williams entered the fray just after halftime, replacing Savea. By then New Zealand were 19-7 up, having led 19-0 at the beak.
Williams only had a couple of touches but the last of those was catching a Pulu pass and then strolling in beside the posts.
Akira Ioane (twice), Mikkelson and Rieko Ioane were New Zealand's other tryscorers but, as seems to be the case whatever he does, Williams was the man who captured everyone's imagination.
New Zealand had been too big and too strong for Russia, with even the little blokes packing a punch. The diminutive Pulu levelled one Russian player in a jolting tackle that led to Akira Ioane's second try and the 19-0 lead at halftime.
Ioane had earlier opened the scoring when his size saw him shrug off a defender and jog in to score in the right corner. Captain Mikkelson crossed on the opposite wing shortly after, once big Ben Lam had trampled over another hapless defender.
New Zealand were a bit slow out of the blocks after halftime, with Russia scoring a converted try through German Davydov. But the introduction of Rieko Ioane and Williams added a spark, with the former scoring a very nice try.
- Dominion Post