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Rugby returned to the Games in some style at Rio 2016, in the shape of the men’s and women’s sevens competitions, which threw up no shortage of action and memorable moments.
Australia got the better of New Zealand in the final of the women’s event to become rugby’s first Olympic gold medallists in 92 years, while a thrillingly gifted Fiji side wowed the Deodoro crowds with their superlative skills, overpowering Great Britain in the men’s final to land their country’s maiden medal and title. Among those on hand to see rugby make its reappearance at the Games was former World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset, who gave the Rio 2016 sevens competition a glowing report: “It has been a huge success and has proved a very popular attraction throughout, with as many as 15,000 spectators attending the final, all in a country that does not play the sport.”
In winning the first ever rugby sevens gold medal and the first in the sport since 1924, Australia lived up to their status as the team to beat in the women’s competition, going down in the history of a game that was very much in the spotlight in Rio. The leading force in the 2015/16 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series season, having won three of the five events to land the overall title, the Australians are also playing an instrumental role in taking the game forward, in all its forms. Their victory on the big stage at Rio 2016 should provide a huge boost to rugby Down Under and around the world.
Spearheaded by Charlotte Caslick, one of the stars of the Olympic competition, the Australians secured gold with 24-17 defeat of old rivals New Zealand. “It’s amazing. I feel so proud,” said team captain Shannon Parry. In reaching the final, the Australians topped their pool, beat Spain 24-0 in the quarter-finals and Canada 17-5 in the semis. For their part, New Zealand enjoyed an equally comfortable group phase before seeing off the USA 5-0 and Great Britain 25-7.
Showcasing their superior organisation and skills against the New Zealanders, the Australians opened the scoring in the final, with Caslick and the fleet-footed Ellia Green running in four tries between them in the first half, and Evania Pelite and Emma Tonagato adding a try apiece in the second.
Fiji’s men’s team made national sporting history by winning the country’s first Olympic medal, producing a magnificent display of power and skill to defeat Great Britain 43-7 in the final and secure gold to the delight of their 900,000 compatriots back home. Under huge pressure to come out on top after dominating the global sevens circuit for the last two years, the Fijians did just that, marking the 60th anniversary of the island nation’s first appearance at the Games, at Melbourne 1956, in the best possible style. In doing so, they played a full part in ensuring a successful return for rugby after its 92-year absence from the Olympic programme.
Speaking before the gold medal match, Ryan said: “Let’s play with freedom and be uninhibited for what is the biggest game of our history.” His players executed his instructions to the letter, scoring five superb answered tries as they romped to a 29-0 half-time lead. Powerless to halt the Fijian steamroller, the British had nothing but pride to play for after the restart, and achieved a measure of consolation when Dan Norton went over the line. The Fijians had a few tricks left up their sleeves, however, and ran out emphatic winners. When the final whistle went, it was greeted with ecstatic celebrations and a few tears.
A professional 15-a-side player with RC Toulon in France’s Top 14, Fiji back Josua Tuisova described Rio 2016 as the high point of his career: “I’m so happy. I want to dedicate this win to my family in Fiji. I’m really grateful for the support I’ve had from everyone. This gold medal means a lot to me and to everyone in Fiji. This is a moment that’s been a long time in the making.”
Britain’s silver was excellent reward for their fine tournament and was made all the more noteworthy by the fact that it was achieved by a scratch team, comprising English, Welsh and Scottish players who normally compete against each other on the international circuit. The highlight of their campaign came in the semi-finals, when they edged to a 7-5 win over a South Africa side expected to challenge Fiji for gold.