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Rugby in Rio: What to expect at the Olympic Games

Akira Ioane goes on the run against Australia (Photo: Martin Seras Lima)
Roar Guru
22nd May, 2016
13

The last time a game of rugby was played at an Olympic Games, chances are that your parents (or grandparents) were not even born.

After a gap of 92 years, rugby makes its return to the Olympics in its shortened, seven-a-side incarnation. It is here to stay as an Olympic sport until at least 2020.

Whether it will stay longer than its previous 24-year stay in the early 20th century is anybody’s guess, but its success in Rio this year will go a long way to determining the sport’s fate.

So what do we expect from sevens? There is a lot more to the sport with seven players per team than fancy-dress carnivals, Hong Kong, and the Flying Fijians.

The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series is conducted each year as ten tournaments across nine or ten venues, much in the vein of Formula One. Teams are granted points based on how high they finish in each individual tournament, each of which consists of 16 teams.

At the end of the year the team with the most points is crowned champion.

This year’s tournament drew to a close this weekend in London, where Scotland dramatically beat South Africa to win the London Sevens in the dying moments of the final. With less than a minute to go, Scotland scored two tries to win their first ever Sevens tournament, with Dougie Fife scoring in the very last second to give Scotland a 27-26 victory. Fife is one of a number of Test stars to have switched to sevens this year to have a go at Olympic glory.

Fiji finished fourth but won the overall series as they only needed to get to the quarter-finals of the London tournament to secure the trophy ahead of South Africa, who finished second overall and second in London as well.

The Blitzbokke have, in fact, finished second in the last four editions of the World Series, and will be hoping they shed their tag of perennial bridesmaids at the most opportune time possible.

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However, Scotland’s victory highlighted how competitive the sport of sevens is. The last three events this year have been won by Kenya, Samoa and now Scotland, with the quality of play being high across all teams in the circuit.

Of the aforementioned three, Kenya will be there in Rio and will hope to maintain their proud sevens tradition with a strong showing. Scotland will compete as Great Britain, and how the combined team works will be interesting to see.

Along with Kenya and Team GB will be the aforementioned Blitzbokke, with flyers Seabelo Senatla and Cecil Afrika, the All Blacks Sevens with the likes of the Ioane brothers Akira and Rieko, France with monster winger Virimi Vakatawa, and of course, the Flying Fijians.

Also not to be taken lightly are Australia, Argentina, Japan and the United States. The Americans especially have come in leaps and bounds, with the ‘fastest man in rugby’ Carlin Isles, and quite possibly the second fastest man in rugby Perry Baker (who demolished New Zealand over the weekend), giving them a real wildcard status.

After all, the United States are defending Olympic champions and have the best record in Olympics in rugby union.

The game of sevens is rapidly changing and is no longer a simple game of hot potato. It requires incredible physicality, endurance, skill and tactics.

Scotland showed in this weekend’s tournament how basic tenets of the fifteens game can also be applied to the shorter format, basing their game around multiple phases of possession, patience and sharp work at the breakdown. They even scored a try off the back of a rolling maul in the final against South Africa, and for once a maul was exciting.

The shortened format ensures many exciting finishes, as seen in Scotland’s comeback in London, and Samoa’s comeback over Fiji in Paris last weekend. It is a truly unpredictable sport.

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And to top it all off, as mentioned earlier, it will not be without its fair share of star attraction. Sonny Bill Williams, Francois Hougaard, and, more recently, Jarryd Hayne are just some of the stars who have made the switch to sevens.

Whether Hayne will get a call-up is not certain – he hardly set the stage on fire at Twickenham – but he does seem to be a popular member of the squad, as the Fijians made the former Parramatta fullback lift the trophy.

The event is not without its concerns, though, as the host nation’s team sticks out like a sore thumb in the much-vaunted company of nations like New Zealand and Fiji. While World Rugby has tried to help the team get competitive this year by having them participate in the World Series, one can only hope their sevens team does better than their football team and not get humiliated in front of their home crowd.

Which brings us to the second bone of contention – the crowds. With Brazil being the land of football, sevens will do well to even play second fiddle to the main sport.

Rugby’s low stature within the country has caused concern over how well tickets will sell. Latest figures show around two-thirds of the competition’s tickets have been bought. It remains to be seen whether Sonny Bill Williams, Jerry Tuwai and company will perform in front of empty crowds or not.

As is the case with several of the events for this year’s Games, the organising of the event is apparently lagging behind schedule, with the progress of construction of the temporary Deodoro Olympic Park, “not exactly where we want it to be,” according to World Rugby head of competitions and performance Mark Egan.

Despite all these concerns, World Rugby and the International Olympic Committee are confident of hosting a successful event, and for those of us who would be watching from home, we can only hope for an entertaining spectacle on the field.

It is quite likely that is exactly what we will get. All 12 teams will be raring to go and will pull out all the stops to get Olympic Gold. I’m not a betting man, but medals for Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand would not surprise me in the least. Watch out for Argentina, Kenya and the United States too.

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What are your thoughts on the event, Roarers?

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