7th heaven for Fijians and Aussies as rugby flourishes in Rio

When the IOC announced that Rugby Sevens would be making it’s Olympic debut at the 2016 games in Rio, many people questioned the worth of bringing in this form of rugby, ahead of more niche sports such as surfing or rock-climbing that would seemingly fit in well with traditional Olympic sports. Yet following the conclusion of the women’s and men’s tournaments in Rio, the carnival atmosphere created by the packed crowds at the Deodoro stadium has well and truly proved the doubters wrong and shown the IOC that they were right to integrate such wonderful entertainment into the Olympic schedule.

Sevens has always been a popular substitute to the traditional 15-a-side game for rugby supporters, with the thrilling end-to-end attacking nature of the game providing great excitement for fans less interested in the tactical element of the sport, which is so predominant in the traditional longer-form of the game.

Amidst Team GB’s golden success at this games, the women’s and men’s sevens teams have more than contributed to what has been a great games for Great Britain. With the women’s tournament beginning before the men’s, Team GB captain Emily Scarratt and her teammates were given an early opportunity to get Great Britain up and running on the medal table and prove that Sevens was there to stay at the Olympics. With a number of wonderful early performances in the pool stages of the competition, they more than succeeded in promoting interest in the game both at home and around the world. After topping a pool including hosts Brazil, Canada and Japan with a 100% record from their three games, hope was high that a medal could be in the offing for Team GB. Another excellent display in the quarter-finals against Fiji saw Scarratt’s side progress to the semi-finals, and with it guarantee themselves a shot of at least a Bronze medal. Facing formidable opponents in the shape of New Zealand in the semis, the match proved one too many for Team GB as the Black Ferns comfortably dispatched their opponents 25-7 to progress to the Gold Medal match where they would face Australia. For Team GB, whilst there was disappointment at just missing out on a shot at a Gold medal, there was still the opportunity to win Bronze as they faced Canada in the Bronze medal match. Having beaten the Canadians 22-0 in the pool stages, Great Britain came into the match as favourites, yet fell to an agonising 33-10 defeat as an inspired Canada took home the Bronze medal. In the final, Australia came out on top 24-17 against New Zealand in a thoroughly entertaining final, that saw the Aussies make history in winning the first rugby sevens Gold in the Olympic games. For Team GB, it was a devastating end to a great tournament for the women’s team who had done the country proud with their efforts in Rio.

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A day after the conclusion of the women’s tournament and it was the turn of the men’s to kick-start their inaugural Olympic tournament. Much excitement had been generated ahead of the games with the news that 2015 World Cup-winning All Black Sonny Bill-Williams would be competing in New Zealand’s Sevens team in Rio. Williams was just one of a number of famous internationals including Leone Nakarawa (Fiji), Francois Hougaard (South Africa) and Juan Imhoff (Argentina) who would be making the switch from the 15-a-side game for the tournament. For Team GB, a squad led by coach Simon Amor included sevens specialists such as captain Tom Mitchell, Dan Bibby and Mark Robertson as well as the likes of James Davies, Marcus Watson and Mark Bennett who like Williams and co were more familiar with the 15-a-side game. After manoeuvring their way through a tricky group stage with three victories including narrow wins over New Zealand and Japan, Mitchell’s men were rewarded with a tricky-looking quarter-final tie against Argentina. What followed was the most tense, nail-biting contest of the tournament as with the match scoreless, the game went into extra-time where both sides missed with shots at goal, before Dan Bibby went over for the winning try to secure victory for Team GB. Elsewhere in the tournament, Fiji maintained their 100% record with a 12-7 victory over a New Zealand side who had scraped through in 3rd place in the pool stages behind Great Britain and Japan. Having lost the talismanic figure of Williams to a tournament-ending injury in their opening game defeat to Japan, they never really recovered as the much-fancied pre-tournament favourites bowed out following defeats to Great Britain and Fiji. With South Africa and Japan also making it through, the semi-final line-ups were confirmed with Japan playing Fiji whilst South Africa took on Great Britain. The first semi-final proved to be a one-sided affair as Fiji ran out 20-5 winners against Japan and with it secured their country’s first ever medal at an Olympic games. The second semi-final proved to be a much tighter affair with South Africa taking an early lead through a try by captain Kyle Brown. A missed conversion by Cecil Afrika let Team GB back in and when Dan Norton ran free to level up the scores with a try, GB skipper Mitchell scored the conversion to give his side a 7-5 lead. With Team GB’s defence having been one of the strongest aspects of their game throughout the tournament, they held on to secure a famous victory and guarantee at least a Silver medal. Having won through in some close matches, many were expecting another tight match for Team GB, yet Fiji had other ideas as they produced a wonderful exhibition of sevens rugby, running in seven tries to GB’s one to record a 43-7 victory and make history by becoming their country’s first ever Olympic Gold medallists.

It was fitting that the Rugby Sevens tournament should finish on such a historic high, with many of the Fijian players breaking down in tears so overwhelmed by what they had just achieved. Under coach Ben Ryan they had once again shown their superiority in this format of the game where their wonderful running and expert offloading makes it nigh on impossible to stop them from scoring. With their expansive and loose brand of rugby often proving to be their undoing in the more tactical and set-piece orientated 15-a-side game, it was wonderful to see this fine rugby nation rewarded for their exhilarating style of play.

With Sevens already guaranteed a place at the Tokyo games in 2020, the IOC will soon meet to see whether the sport will carry on in the Olympics post 2020. Given its popular nature in Rio it seems unthinkable to suggest that Rugby Sevens won’t continue in the Olympics for years to come. The shortened format of Sevens has worked perfectly in engaging audiences and will go a long way in helping to promote the sport of rugby further around the world. Surely this tournament has also shown the IOC that a similar format should be adopted in other sports at the Olympics, with football in particular often seeming to be the most irrelevant of sports at the games. Replacing ninety-minute eleven-a-side matches with twenty-minute five or seven-a-side matches would immediately create a more exciting and engaging atmosphere for people who often watch the Olympics to escape mainstream sports such as traditional football. The IOC have made some pretty poor decisions of late but their decision to integrate Rugby Sevens into the games has been one of their more credible ones that has further enhanced the entertainment of the games, and with more of a common sense policy applied to other Olympic sports, the games will hopefully continue to grow and grow as the Greatest Show on Earth.

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