Olympics makes lasting impression
Not since All Blacks wing Julian Savea powered to three tries and put Ireland’s Rob Kearney on his backside has rugby witnessed a more impressive debut than that of Rugby 7s at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Amazingly eight members of the International Olympic Committee chose to vote against its inclusion back in 2009 – clearly not convinced by World Rugby’s then chairman Bernard Lapasset’s claim that, “Rugby Sevens is a perfect fit for the Olympic Games.”
But following a thrilling battle for gold medal glory in both the men’s and women’s competitions, dissenters will surely be hard to find when the IOC votes again next May to extend Rugby 7s stay beyond the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo or cast it aside once more.
The credit must go to the players and coaches who showcased the very best the sport has to offer with the dazzling play of Australia’s Charlotte Caslick, Japan’s shock win over New Zealand, the insane handling of Fiji and the images of Great Britain consoling their Argentina rivals following their epic quarter-final clash just a few of many memorable moments played out at the Deodoro Stadium.
The Australian women’s team were the first to make history with a 24-17 victory over New Zealand securing the sport’s first Olympic gold medal since the United States edged out hosts France and Romania at the 1924 Games.
Australia’s success was not only confirmation of their superiority in the women’s game following on from their victory in the most recent Women’s Sevens World Series, but also a coaching triumph for Tim Walsh.
Incredibly the team did not exist four year ago but the former Reds fly-half and Australia 7s captain has managed to not only identify potential talent but also mould his players into an all-conquering and entertaining team.
Making his achievement even more impressive is the fact that many of his players had never played the game before being enticed away from touch football, basketball, athletics and rugby league by the chance to make Olympic history.
That freshness was key to their success according to Walsh.
“They haven’t been playing rugby since they were five, six, like the men, so they don’t accept things as set in stone,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald ahead of the Games. “The women are always asking, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we try that?’ And I’ll think, ‘Yeah, that could work’…They teach me and challenge me. "
The significance of funding from the Australian Rugby Union that allowed his players to go full time cannot be underestimated and no doubt helped to unite a team whose unofficial motto would become: ‘ROAR: Respect, Olympic dreams, Accountability, and Rough bitches’.
Another coach rightfully basking in glory is Fiji’s Ben Ryan who steered his side to an emphatic 43-7 victory over his native Great Britain in the men’s final.
Blessed with an abundance of talented players seemingly all capable of the extraordinary, Fiji have always been a force in Rugby 7s. But their often mesmerising and crowd-pleasing approach has at times been undermined by a failure to set such standards when it comes to discipline and fitness.
That was until former England 7s coach Ryan took charge in 2013 and embarked on a radical revamp of how they prepared. The impact was almost immediate with back-to-back Sevens World Series titles and now a first ever Olympic gold for the South Pacific nation.
“In some ways it was a challenge because nothing was working, but as long as I negotiated my way around it properly then it was almost like a blank canvas,” Ryan told Reuters earlier this year.
Ryan set about imposing a structure within which his team would be able to play their natural high-tempo and high-risk game from first whistle to last with his changes including the introduction of new strength and conditioning programmes, nutritional education and extensive video analysis.
So grateful for his inspiration, his adopted nation have since made Ryan a Companion of the Order of Fiji – the country’s highest honour – but the modest coach has played down his contribution.
“I feel very lucky that I’m in charge of such an unbelievable group of athletes that are so passionate about rugby sevens, I certainly wouldn’t have had this success if it wasn’t for them, I’m a small part of this,” said Ryan.
Try telling that to the rumoured 20 teams chasing Ryan’s services following his announcement that he will now step down as Fiji coach. The coaching world – both Rugby 7s and XVs – is his oyster.
Also worthy of mention among the coaching ranks are Great Britain coach Simon Amor and his assistant Gareth Williams whose side only came together on the eve of the Olympics.
The Great Britain players competed for their individual nations – England, Scotland and Wales – on the Sevens circuit but were one of the most impressive ‘team’ competing in Rio with the final proving just one game too far.
The outstanding success of the Olympics competition turns up the heat on the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament.
World Rugby originally agreed to make the Olympics the pinnacle of the shortened version of the game by scrapping the World Cup but they later reversed that decision.
As a result, the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens event in San Francisco, USA, must match the thrills and spills delivered in Rio while the annual Sevens World Series is tasked with fanning the flames of the wider interest in the sport ignited by the Olympics.
The World Cup will also most likely have to emerge from the afterglow of the next Commonwealth Games Rugby Sevens competition that is set to be played out on the Gold Coast in Australia the same year – where women will compete for the first time.
The battle for the 2014 Commonwealth Games crown in Glasgow, Scotland generated unprecedented interest and adulation and many of the sport’s major players – Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Kenya and Samoa – will grace that stage again in two year’s time.
It is a nice problem for the sport to have.
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont is correct, the Olympics has been a ‘game-changer’ to rival even the most outrageous off-load from Fiji’s Leone Nakarawa. According to World Rugby, participation has almost doubled to 7.73m with much of that growth coming in new and emerging rugby nations.
In return, Rugby 7s provided one of the must-see events of the Olympics, a magical Hollywood-style ending and a truly global competition with countries from Asia, Europe, Oceania and Africa all vying for medal honours.
Do we even need to vote on whether it should remain part of the Olympics?