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Australia’s rugby sevens men have booked their ticket to the Olympic Games but only after a dramatic afternoon at Twickenham described by their skipper as “one of the biggest roller-coasters ever”.
Captain Nick Malouf’s team had quickly got knocked out by Fiji in the quarter-finals on Sunday morning as they sought to defend their season-ending London Sevens title.
Yet that was only the prelude to a nerve-shredding afternoon as they then got involved in a desperate struggle to nail down the final automatic place for Paris 2024.
With Samoa also battling for the coveted place, Australia blew two chances to seal the spot, first in the 19-5 defeat by Olympic champs Fiji in the last-eight and then when they had victory cruelly snatched away 22-19 by France at the death in the fifth-place semi-final.
After Frenchman Paulin Riva had bagged the winning try once Australia were penalised for a penalty with 10 seconds left, their players looked shattered, as if they felt their last chance must have gone.
But Samoa, who were then less than a couple of a minutes away from sealing their first-ever Olympic spot as they led Argentina 7-5 in their semi-final, were pipped by a late try, losing 10-5.
That gave the Australians one last chance to earn the Paris place if they could defeat hosts Great Britain in the seventh-place playoff.
This time, Malouf and his men made no mistake, producing by far their best performance of the weekend as they crushed the home side 34-5.
Star man Nathan Lawson, who finished with six tries over the whole weekend, went over for a decisive hat-trick while Maurice Longbottom and Matt Gonzalez also scored in the five-try demolition.
“Today was one of the biggest roller-coasters ever,” beamed a relieved Malouf, the evergreen 30-year-old Queenslander who had scored two tries himself in the French defeat.
“Two losses to start the day and then we just got lucky by some miracle and just got that chance to play for it against Great Britain.
“But there’s been so much hard work going into this – we’ve never qualified automatically before for the Olympics – so it’s a really big deal for us, I’m so over the moon.
“We’re so thankful, a lot of people follow us all around the world, and we’re just so proud we could put on a performance and lock down that Olympic spot down. Now, we’ve got 12 months to make sure we’re right in Paris.”
While the Aussies celebrated, there was heartbreak for the Samoans, who will now have to go through cut-throat Oceanian qualifying to get to Paris.
They would have beaten Argentina if not for a forward pass which meant their second, surely match-winning score was ruled out.
To add insult to injury, they then had to watch Argentina go on and lift the title, beating Fiji 35-14 in the final.
The Pumas were always in control once Fiji’s Josese Batirerega was sent off in the second minute for a tip tackle on Luciano Gonzalez.
The Samoans’ consolation was to earn a come-from-behind 24-19 win over world series champs New Zealand in the bronze-medal match.