By Nathaniel Holland
France and USA secured their spot in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games on the final day of the qualifying tournament in Paris on Thursday.
There was heartbreak for Denmark and New Zealand in the semi-finals as Nathaniel Holland recaps on all the action from the final day.
Semi-final one- USA 56-44 Denmark
USA sailed into the final and booked their place at the 2016 Paralympic Games with a 56-44 win over Denmark.
It was a repeat of the Day Two opening fixture with USA narrowly edging past their opponents by five points.
Ranked number two in the world, USA were pre-tournament favourites for qualification and they really showed why they are one of the world’s best with their sixth win of the week.
Denmark were well up for the challenge in the opening exchanges, but USA really showed their dominance to force early timeouts by Denmark. There were little mistakes from both teams keeping the game fairly level in the opening eight-minute spell. Josh Wheeler briefly lost concentration from the inbound to give Denmark possession, which was unusual for a team that is usually so well composed.
Eric Newby rolled over the line in the final ten seconds of the quarter to give USA a little two-point cushion heading into the first interval.
USA were pumped up for the game, with the stakes high, their bench was in full voice cheering on their team mates on court, creating a great atmosphere in an intense fixture. Denmark lost their way a little bit in the second period, at one stage having two players in the penalty box, allowing USA to stretch the lead further.
With seven points the gap at half time, Denmark, ranked seventh in the world, will have been wondering how they were going to break down this solid USA team.
It was a very even third quarter, USA only managed to add a further point gap in the resulting eight minutes of play but an eight-point gap almost surely secured their plane ticket to Rio.
USA kept up the pressure in the final quarter to end the game 12 points clear.
Semi-final two- New Zealand 48–51 France
France booked their ticket for Rio and set up a final with USA after a narrow victory to New Zealand.
It was heartbreak for the Wheel Blacks who managed to beat France in the pool stage on Day Two, a result that ultimately earned them the automatic semi-final spot.
Wheel Black captain Sholto Taylor said: “We are obviously disappointed with that. A lot of effort went in to the games this week and it’s a real shame that we have not got what we set out to get.”
New Zealand’s customary start to proceedings, the Haka, had a different feel to the showings in previous games, there was more of an atmosphere and the French team were right in the faces of their enemy on court, a real showing to what was at stake in this grudge match.
The game was fierce from the off with big challenges flying in. Kiwi Dan Buckingham took a few big tumbles after collisions with Christophe Salegui.
The teams entered the first break all even on 11-11 but France came out all guns blazing after the restart and quickly went two points ahead. A two point lead has been good enough to go on and win games this week but New Zealand fought back and pulled the scores level again.
The Wheel Blacks then went one point ahead but France forced the mistake needed and Chris Lay’s (1.5) misguided pass from the by line to Cameron Leslie (3.0) gave France the opportunity to claw the score back.
Ryadh Sallem scored with seven seconds remaining to give France a one-point advantage at half time. NZ did have one last attack in the dying seconds but Salegui blocks brilliantly to deny Buckingham.
France managed to put a bit of breathing space between themselves and New Zealand with a three-point gap as the Kiwis changed their line as Taylor, Cody Everson and Tanafi Lafono entered the court.
The fresh trio defended well but France kept on the pressure and Cedric Nankin rolled over with one second on the shot clock to put the home nation four points clear. Taylor managed to get across the line in the nick of time to keep the score within three points going into the final quarter.
France managed to hold their lead in the final eight minutes as New Zealand battled in vein to force a turnover but France held strong and secured their final spot and more importantly there spot in Rio.
5th placed play off Germany 52-37 Finlan
Following the hyper and excitement following the early semi-final games, the 5th placed play-off had a hard task to follow a game like the French had just had.
Germany’s only win of the week came against Finland on the opening day and they were able to repeat the feat with a 52-37 victory, meaning Finland head home without a single win.
Finland reverted to their usual order of events, matching their opposition in the first quarter before going off the boil in the remainder of the game. Germany managed to end the opening period with a two-point lead and they only added to the onslaught.
It was basically over by half time with Germany ten points clear with the score at 27-17, a lead that would have taken a miracle for Finland to pull back with only 16 minutes left to play.
Germany put even more daylight between the sides at the end of the third period, stretching the lead to 12 points before extending it further with a final score of 52-37, 15 points clear of Finland.
Bronze match New Zealand 46–51 Denmark
Both New Zealand and Denmark both had to recover quickly and play for bragging rights in the bronze medal match. Both teams had lost in the early tip-offs, missing out on a place in Rio.
New Zealand, who had played the same four for the majority of the semi-final clash with France, gave a rest to some of their players and gave some of the other players a chance to go on court.
Denmark, who missed out on a final spot after losing to USA, carved out a small three point lead in the opening quarter as both teams looked tired from a packed week of rugby in Paris.
Denmark managed to keep their advantage on court having possibly been the better of the two sides across the week on a whole and they stretched the lead to four points at the halfway stage.
Cameron Leslie, who had put in a mammoth shift in the semi-final was trying to inspire a Kiwi comeback but it wasn’t to be as NZ looked to be going home in fourth position.
The Wheel Blacks battled hard in the final moments but it wasn’t to be and Denmark finished the game five points clear to claim bronze, a small consolation having thought about what could have been for both nations.
Final USA 54-45 France
USA finished the week on a high, completing four days in Paris unbeaten and winning the tournament with an impressive 54-45 win over the host nation France.
Both sides booked their plane ticket to Rio following crucial semi-final victories earlier today and the final was just a formality to end what has been an amazing festival of rugby.
France, buoyed in front of a lively home crowd, started the game with great emphasis and caused USA problems, something teams have struggled to do throughout the week.
USA made a couple of early mistakes to allow France to grab hold of the game. Lee Fredette (1.0) lost possession when being forced back into the defensive half and Christophe Salegui rolls over to create a two-point lead.
Eric Newby (2.0) pulled USA back within one point but Chad Cohn’s (1.0) stint in the penalty box kept France one point ahead at the end of the first quarter.
USA picked up their game in the second period and forced France to use up two of their time outs just two minutes into the quarter. France went two points up after an uncharacteristic loose pass from USA star man Chuck Aoki,
But Aoki (3.0) made up for his mistake as USA turned things around and the high pointer was the man to roll over the line to give the Eagles a one point lead at the half way stage.
The Eagles were on top from then on and a line change gave them a defensive boost as they blocked any France attempt running the shot clock down to assert their dominance.
France were tiring and USA powered through to take a five point lead into the last quarter. The lead was stretched to nine before the end of the game as USA win the qualifying tournament and celebrate reaching Rio.
Pictures courtesy of Luc Percival, with thanks.