HONG KONG — Nathan Hirayama became the first Canadian to reach the 1,000-point plateau in rugby sevens as Canada tied for seventh Sunday at the Hong Kong Sevens.
Olympic champion Fiji won the famed tournament for a record 17th time, beating Series leader South Africa 22-0 in a lopsided final.
The Fijians started the day by dispatching Canada 29-12 in the Cup quarter-finals, its 44th win in 46 meetings between the two. Canada, which went 2-1-0 in pool play, then exited in a 20-19 loss to Argentina on a last-second try by Franco Sabato.
Still there were positives for coach Damian McGrath's team, which climbed another rung to ninth place in the World Series overall standings. Hong Kong marked the third event in a row that the Canadians made the elite Cup quarter-finals.
And it was a historic weekend for Hirayama, who came into his 50th career World Series tournament tied with Phil Mack for the all-time Canada point record at 973. The 29-year-old from Richmond, B.C., now has 1,006 points to stand 18th on the world all-time list.
Canada led Fiji 12-5 in the quarter-final but then gave up 24 straight points.
Canada started poorly as the Pacific Islanders won the ball on their own kickoff and Vatemo Ravouvou sliced through the Canadian defence for a try within the first 30 seconds.
Canada responded with a Luke McCloskey try, taking advantage of a Fijian penalty after a well-worked attack. A disputed try by Lucas Hammond, dragging two Fijian tacklers with him into the base of the goalpost, gave Canada a 12-5 lead.
But a converted try on the ensuing restart by Kalione Nasoko, running over a Canadian tackler en route to the goal-line, ended the half at 12-12.
Fiji starved Canada of possession in the second half and went ahead on tries by Ravouvou, Nasoko and Sevuloni Mocenacagi. Jerry Tuwai set up the second Nasoko try with an eye-popping behind-the-head pass while Mocenacagi capped a trademark fluid end-to-end Fijian attack.
Canada trailed 15-0 at halftime to Argentina but pulled ahead with 19 straight second-half points on tries by Hirayama, Harry Jones and Hammond before Sabato retrieved his own chip over the Canadian defence to score the deciding try on the final play of the game.
Fiji downed Australia 33-23 in semifinal play before disposing the Blitzboks.
Still rebuilding after several senior players and coach Ben Ryan left after winning the Olympic gold medal, Fiji ended its lean run this season in spectacular fashion by claiming the Hong Kong title for the third year in a row.
Running its opponents ragged with a combination of power, pace and improvisation, Fiji opened up a 10-0 at halftime of the final after tries from Mocenacagi and Mesulame Kunavula. It then put the result beyond doubt with two tries from Nasoko in the second half.
"There's been a lot of pressure," said Fiji captain Oseo Kolinisau. "At the start of this tournament, I told the boys let's not think about the three-peat, let's chase it like we're gunning for our first Hong Kong title."
The relief was evident too for new coach Gareth Baber, though the Welshman said the result would not reduce the expectations on Fiji to keep winning.
"There's always huge expectations on. The are the world champions and the Olympic champions for a reason," he said. "Ben did a fantastic job and now I have to try and pick up that baton and move it on.
"And even though we've got Olympians in there, they're still humble enough to know they can still add to their skill set."
For South Africa, the long wait for its first Hong Kong title goes on after the Blitzboks finished runners-up for the fourth time.
They almost came unstuck in the semifinals against the U.S. when they blew a 17-point lead before beating the American 29-24 in extra time but were unable to raise their game in the final.
"We knew playing against Fiji in the final in Hong Kong that they were always going to up their performance by 10 to 15 per cent and that's what they did," South African coach Neil Powell said.
"That's not an excuse. We needed to absorb that pressure and not make mistakes ... so credit to Fiji, they played better than us and deserved to win."
Australia, beaten 33-12 by Fiji in the semifinals, defeated the U.S. 26-19 to win the third-place playoff, its best result of the season.
The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series circuit heads to Singapore next.
Spain will join the tour next season after beating Germany in the final of the Hong Kong qualifying tournament.
With files from the Associated Press
The Canadian Press