GOLD COAST, Australia (AFP) – Fiji sealed a third Gold Coast rugby sevens title with a try seconds from full-time Sunday, getting their quest for a maiden Olympic medal off to a flying start.
The Fijians won a thrilling final 31-24 against Pacific rivals Samoa, holding on for victory in the face of a brave Samoan fightback.
They cruised to a 26-0 lead in the first half, with Setefano Cakau scoring a try double, before the Samoans piled on 24 unanswered points to trail by two points into the final minute of the contest.
Jasa Veremalua’s strong run sealed the win for the Fijians. He dived over in the corner to ensure Fiji lead the IRB World Sevens series after the first of nine events.
This year’s IRB World Sevens series doubles as a qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympic tournament, with the top four-ranked countries earning an automatic berth.
Fiji have never won an Olympic medal but will be among the favourites if they can reach Rio.
The Fijians did not lose a game in the weekend tournament, beating Australia 35-12 in Saturday’s final pool match before demolishing Wales (31-10), England (48-7) and Samoa to make it three wins from four trips to the Gold Coast.
England, who stunned New Zealand with a 31-7 win over the world champions in the quarter-finals, finished third with a 19-0 victory over South Africa.
New Zealand recovered from their quarter-final shock to win the consolation plate and fifth place in the tournament with a 36-21 win over Argentina.
It was the first time New Zealand have failed to make the final at the Gold Coast event since its inception three years ago.
The result was the All Blacks’ worst at an IRB sevens tournament since they also finished fifth in Dubai in 2011.
Australia had to settle for a share of seventh with Wales after they suffered back-to-back defeats on Sunday.
The Thunderbolts fell agonisingly short in their quarter-final against Commonwealth Games champions South Africa, losing 12-10 with Cameron Clark missing a conversion after the full-time siren before slumping to a 21-17 loss to Argentina in the plate semi-final.
South Africa will rue a missed opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the All Blacks in the standings, finishing fourth.
The future of the sevens tournament on the Gold Coast looks uncertain after disappointing attendances over the weekend.
Officially 20,546 attended the two-day event, an underwhelming number when compared to some of the marquee stops on the global tour such as Hong Kong, Wellington or London.
The four-year deal with the Queensland state government to host the sevens on the Gold Coast is now at an end, and it is unsure if the event will return in 2015.
The next leg of the world series will be in Dubai in December.