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Fiji Takes Hong Kong 7s, US Gains Ground

American Carlin Isles (right) evades France's Vincent Inigo during the US's 21-19 loss at the Hong Kong Rugby 7s on Saturday. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

The US Eagles only won one of the five games they played this weekend at the Hong Kong Sevens, but it was the one that mattered most.

After dropping all three of their group games, the Americans defeated Scotland in the consolation Quarterfinals, known as the Bowl bracket, 21-12. The win was important as the US came into the match trailing the Scots by five points for the final automatic Core Qualifier spot in next year’s IRB Sevens World Series. The US’s 11th place finish, coupled with Scotland’s joint-15th place finish, moved the Eagles to within one point of Scotland for the 12th and final automatic core spot, with two legs to go before the qualifier cut-off.

Of the 15 core teams on the World Series tour this year, only the top twelve after the eighth of nine legs, to be held in Edinburgh, Scotland, will automatically retain their core status for the 2013-14 competition. Core teams automatically qualify for all legs of the tour, with the 16th spot in each leg given to a regional wild-card selection. The bottom three teams after Edinburgh will have to fight to retain their status against four qualifiers and Hong Kong at the tour’s final event in London in May.

Matt Hawkins scored the first two tries of the game for the US, the first after teammate Folau Niua had been sin-binned for two minutes for a yellow card infraction. Nick Edwards added a third try 40 seconds into the second half to extend the lead to 21-0. Scotland responded with two quick tries, but the American defense held to preserve the nine-point victory. The win advanced the Eagles to the Bowl semi-finals against Hong Kong, where they were turned back 20-12 by the hosts. Mike Palefau and Zach Test scored tries for the US, but Hong Kong’s Tom McQueen countered with three of his team’s four tries in the win. Scotland’s last place finish was secured with a 12-7 loss to Argentina in the Shield (13th-16th place) bracket.

But the two clubs will not have long to wait before the renew pleasantries, as they have both been drawn into Group B for next weekend’s Japan Sevens in Tokyo along with Kenya and Wales. The result of the US-Scotland match will also interest Spain, who are level with the US in 13th overall, and Portugal, who are nine points behind. The Japan Sevens is the penultimate one before the relegation zone drops.

Earlier in the tournament, the Eagles dropped their first game to Kenya, 17-14, on Friday, with Hawkins and Carlin Isles scoring tries for the Americans. On Saturday, they trailed France 21-0 at halftime, and came back with three straight tries by Niua, Palefau, and Jack Halalilo. But it was Niua’s missed conversion on Halalilo’s try that was the difference as Les Bleus held on 21-19. The final group game saw the Americans go toe-to-toe with tour leaders New Zealand before going down 24-12. Hawkins scored both American tries in that game.

Meanwhile, Fiji, who came to Hong Kong missing a number of key players including leading Series point scorer Joji Baleviani Raqamate due to injury, won their second title of the series, coming from behind to defeat Wales 26-19 in the final. The Fijians, trailing 19-0 at the break, scored four unanswered tries, three of them by Osea Kolinisau. In all, it was an impressive performance that saw Fiji run off six consecutive wins by a combined margin of 117 points, including a 33-14 win over New Zealand in the Cup (championship) semi-finals. The tournament win saw them jump over Samoa and South Africa into second in the overall series points standings. However, New Zealand, who ended up thumping Kenya 36-5 in the 3rd place game, still hold a commanding 25 point lead for the championship. The All Blacks are seeking their 11th title in the series’ 14th season. New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, and South Africa were all able to earn enough points to clinch their core spots for next season by virtue of their results.

Over in the pre-qualifying tournament, Zimbabwe, Russia, Tonga, and Georgia advanced to join Hong Kong and the three “relegated” teams in May’s Core Qualifier. Zimbabwe won the tournament’s final 22-19 over Tonga. Three of the four teams have appeared as regional wild cards this season, with Georgia looking to make its first tour appearance since 2007.

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