- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

GOLD COAST, Australia (AP) - Fiji took first honors on rugby’s road to the Rio Olympics, holding off Samoa 31-24 in a final of shifting momentum Sunday at the Gold Coast sevens when Jasa Veremalua put the result beyond doubt in the dying seconds. That, apparently, was the easy part.

The drums were still beating and the large sections of Fijians in the crowd were still celebrating when national sevens coach Ben Ryan, an Englishman, turned his attention to fundraising for the next stop on the IRB sevens world series at Dubai in early December.

The top four teams in the nine-tournament IRB series automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics, elevating the stakes at the opening event on Australia’s Gold Coast.

“I said whoever won this tournament is going to be able to fly home feeling a little bit more settled and happy about trying to get top four. But In Fiji, nothing should be taken for granted,” Ryan said. “We just about got funds to run camps for this tournament. And I desperately need funds to run it for Dubai. If we can prepare like we did for this tournament, then we’re in with a shout this year.”

“Anyone out there who wants to write a check to us - I’ll look after the money appropriately,” he added, quickly. “And that isn’t a joke, by the way.”

Teams such as Fiji and Samoa operate on a fraction of the budgets of established rugby powers New Zealand and Australia - which were both knocked out in the quarterfinals - and England, and have the constant drain of talented players moving abroad to take up professional contracts.

With rugby sevens included in the Olympic program for the first time, there’s high expectations in Fiji and Samoa that medals will finally be achievable for Pacific countries where the sport is so popular.

“Everyone in Fiji expects us to win a gold medal and don’t necessarily understand the budget (problems),” Ryan said. He lost four players from his 2013 squad to foreign clubs, and discovered Saturday that three players from his extended training squad were moving to Sri Lanka.

“It’s all hands to the deck again as soon as we come off the field to make sure we can look after these boys, give them the appropriate money,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll get paid their win bonus after this so they stay in the program.”

The win came at the end of a long weekend for Fijians, who were celebrating the 44th anniversary of independence. For the players, there was no champagne toast planned. Ryan said they’re banned from the traditional “kava” or alcohol while in camp with the national team, and the celebrations would include some takeaway food instead.

The Fijians raced to a 26-0 lead just before halftime, with Apisai Domolailai opening the scoring inside 20 seconds and Setefano Cakau scoring on either side of Semi Kunatani’s try.

But Samoa scored the next four tries - starting when Fautua Otto touched down just after the halftime siren sounded - and made it 26-24 with two minutes to play when Tila Mealoi finished off a length-of-the-field attack.

An injury to Tofatuimoana Solia caused a break in play, halting Samoa’s momentum before Veremalua scored with 14 seconds remaining.

“I was a bit shell-shocked really - Samoa, that momentum shift is pretty significant in sevens. We were probably saved by that injury,” Ryan said. “Apart from that five or six minutes, we were the best side here this weekend and deservedly won the title.”

The dramatic final capped a day of upsets and surprises.

England knocked heavyweight New Zealand out in the quarterfinals with a surprising 31-7 victory, but had no answer against a rampant Fiji in the semifinals, losing 48-7. The English rallied to win the third-place match 19-0 against South Africa, which was coming off a 28-12 loss to Samoa in the semis.

New Zealand, the defending world series champion and 2013 winner on the Gold Coast, rebounded to win the plate division with comprehensive wins over Wales and Argentina.

New Zealand has won 12 of the last 15 IRB world series, but missed out on the semifinals for the first time in almost two years.

Veteran coach Gordon Tietjens said competition seemed fiercer this year.

“It confirms the tough battle it’s going to be right through the series,” he said. “We’ve got to get back on the horse and look to redeem ourselves in the next two tournaments.

“My dream is to go to the Olympics. There’s big challenges, but I’m certainly up for them and I know my players are as well,” he said. The team was “hurting after losing the quarterfinal, but we bounced back.”

Australia was runner-up on the Gold Coast last year, but finished ninth after back-to-back losses to South Africa and Argentina.

Coach Geraint John said he wasn’t writing off the Olympic qualifying campaign after one weekend.

“You’ve got to remember, it’s only one of nine tournaments,” he said. “That’s the nature of the game in a sevens tournament. You saw Fiji last year beat New Zealand by 50-odd points in Dubai and people said, ‘Oh, New Zealand are gone’ - and then they ended up coming back and winning the world series. That’s the beauty of the game - it’s very unpredictable.”

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