Kiwis avoid upset against US to reach Olympic semifinals
New Zealand's Portia Woodman, bottom, scores a try as USA's Lauren Doyle, right, watches during the women's rugby sevens quarter final match at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
AP Sports Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In back-to-back games, the U.S. women were within range of upset wins over Australia and New Zealand, the two leading contenders for the first rugby sevens gold medal ever awarded at the Olympics.
By the end of an eventful Sunday, though, the semifinal pairings reflected the status quo in women's sevens with the top four teams in the world series vying for medals.
World series winner 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.
Britain advanced 26-7 over Fiji and then watched as semifinal opponent New Zealand struggled to put away the Americans 5-0, the only points coming from a try by world series try-scoring leader Portia Woodman just before halftime.
"I told them that they were true Olympians. They represented USA really, really well," U.S. women's coach Richie Walker said of his squad. "We played the No. 1 and No. 2 nations in the world today but I saw no fear. We hung with the best in the world. We drew with the No. 1 and we just lost by five points to the No. 2."
The Americans lost 12-7 to Fiji in their opening game Saturday, adding to the pressure on them in the last Pool A match to beat Australia on Sunday. Winger Jessica Jevelet scored two tries to give the Americans a 12-5 lead going into the last minute, but Emma Tonegato reached over to score her second try of the match for the Aussies and Chloe Dalton converted after the full-time siren for a draw.
Jevelet was again in the thick of it against New Zealand. The Americans had a scoring opportunity shut down with three minutes to go when 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, but the New Zealanders survived unscathed.
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.
"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."
The Americans will have to settle for playing in classification matches for fifth-eighth places along with the other quarterfinal losers.
"It probably hurts right now because they're out of medal contention, but still we have something to fight for," Walker said. "We want to finish No. 5.
"That's the best day rugby-wise, not results-wise, that I've ever seen from the girls. So I'm really proud."
Australia coach Tim Walsh said the Americans gave his team "the kick up the pants that we needed going into the quarterfinals," where Charlotte Caslick scored twice and Tonegato added another to each increase their tournament tallies to six, equal with Woodman.
The top three teams from the sevens world series appeared more vulnerable on Sunday 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 Canadians entered as the likely bronze medalists, but now face Australia in the semifinals — which doesn't entirely bother them. Canada beat the Australians to win the last stop on the world series last season and nudge ahead of England for third place.
"The Olympics are a whole new thing for us and we're still kind of getting used to that," Canada back Bianca Farella said. "I think it's an unconscious thing but tomorrow we start fresh."