Two tries in the last minute enabled New Zealand to stay in contention for the title on the first day of the World Rugby Cape Town Sevens tournament at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.
New Zealand, winners of the opening tournament of the 2018/2019 season in Dubai last weekend, faced elimination before the quarter-final stage for the first time in their history until they rallied to beat hosts South Africa 26-21 in the final match of the day.
An injury-hit New Zealand side needed to win to qualify for the knockout stage after suffering a shock 21-17 defeat against Samoa in an earlier Pool A match.
Inside the last minute, South Africa’s Blitzboks led 21-14 but Sione Molia scored a late converted try to draw the teams level. There was just enough time for New Zealand to kick off, South Africa were unable to secure possession and Vilimoni Koroi scored in the left corner.
South Africa, New Zealand and Samoa were tied at the top of the table but South Africa, the defending series champions, won the group ahead of New Zealand on points difference.
While South Africa and New Zealand go through to Sunday’s Cup quarter-finals, Samoa will have to compete for the secondary Challenge Trophy.
“The belief was always there,” said New Zealand captain Andrew Knewstubb.
“It was a matter of taking it on to the park. It was lucky we pulled up our socks in the last couple of minutes.”
South Africa captain Philip Snyman, wearing a special multi-coloured jersey to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of former president Nelson Mandela, said: “New Zealand kept their composure.
“It’s lucky (for us) that it’s only day one. We’ll have to be a bit sharper tomorrow.”
South Africa meet Scotland in the quarter-finals while New Zealand play Australia. New Zealand’s win over South Africa was a reverse of their defeat against Samoa, for whom Tula Maloi came off the bench to score the winning try after the final hooter.
The United States, runners-up in Dubai, won all three matches against Japan, Spain and Argentina to top Pool B and qualify to play England at the last-eight stage.
Spain gained a surprise 35-12 win over Argentina to earn a place in the quarter-finals and condemn Argentina to the Challenge competition. The Spaniards will play perennial contenders Fiji, who clinched first place in Pool C with a 21-19 win over England in a top-of-the-table clash.
© Agence France-Presse (additional edits from Chris Kelleher)