Rugby is one of two sports returning to the Olympic programme at Rio after a long absence. The men’s Olympic rugby sevens competition begins today – and as Will Jones reports, Fiji is hoping to make history by winning gold
There’s no two ways about it: the 2015-16 season is the most important in the history of international rugby sevens. The calendar kicked off last December with the ever-popular Dubai Sevens tournament. And it draws to a close this week with the sport – a faster and more exciting version of rugby union – making its long-awaited Olympic debut.
After Australia were crowned the inaugural women’s champions yesterday, today sees the turn of the men. Fiji, winners of the Dubai Sevens, will start the competition as favourites, and the country is on the edge of its seat. As the team’s English coach Ben Ryan admitted to World Rugby last week, “It is always an obsession to follow the team… but Fiji is close to meltdown with Rio fever.”
Fiji’s Olympic story has previously been about participation rather than success. Made up of roughly 330 islands, around a third of which are inhabited, this archipelago nation in the South Pacific has a population of fewer than a million people and has never won an Olympic medal. The country sent just nine athletes to London 2012 and six to the Beijing Games – both delegations smaller than the 12-man rugby sevens squad that has travelled to Rio.
After Fiji’s triumph at the Dubai Sevens, captain Osea Kolinisau admitted that he loved playing and winning in front of big crowds. “It is an amazing feeling when you get to win a tournament – especially in Dubai in front of so many fans,” said Kolinisau, who carried the country’s flag at Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony.
Kolinisau and his teammates experienced that winning feeling twice more in 2015-16 with victories in Las Vegas and Hong Kong, en route to topping the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings for a second season in a row. And now they get to do it all again on the world’s biggest sporting stage. “There are not many sports around the globe that have such an impact to the whole nation,” says Ryan. “The country does grind to a standstill when the boys are playing.”
Having been drawn with Argentina, the USA and host nation Brazil, top-seeded Fiji should ease through their opening group games – but the competition should get considerably tougher in the knockout stages. South Africa, who won in Dubai in 2014, is probably the biggest threat, with New Zealand close behind.
The competition’s wild card is Great Britain, largely because the nation never competed as a team at this level. In international rugby sevens, England, Scotland and Wales usually play as separate nations rather than under the British flag. It will be fascinating to see how the squad of eight Englishmen, two Scots and two Welshmen gels on the field in Rio.
All eyes, though, will be on the Fijians, who are hoping for a fairy-tale finish to a world-beating season.
The men’s Olympic rugby sevens competition begins on Tuesday, August 9 and ends on Thursday, August 11