After 90 years away from the Olympics, it was a big surprise that rugby made its return this year, but the seven a side version of the game has taken Rio 2016 by storm. Despite the poor crowds, which have been seen all over Rio, the Rugby Sevens has been among the top events, and it is now expected the IOC will make it a permanent fixture in the Olympic Games, as it undergoes a trial period until after Tokyo 2020.
The pace of the sport in both the men’s and women’s competition was extraordinary, and the fact that one missed tackle or a yellow card can change a game is a fantastic leveller, and keeps the spectators on the edge of their seats. Japan, who defeated South Africa at last year’s Rugby World Cup, once again grabbed the headlines as they reached the semi-finals, defeating New Zealand and running silver medallists Great Britain close. With the next World Cup and Olympics in Japan, it’s a fantastic chance for the game to spread to the Far East, and after their successes over the past two years now, expect there to be a significant change over the next four years.
Canada were the story in the women’s draw, claiming a bronze medal. North America is another area where rugby is yet to make an impact, and the Olympic sevens may be the tool to turn heads. Truth be told, Rio wouldn’t have been the ideal location for the rugby sevens to make its Olympic bow, with the nation obsessed with his round ball cousin, but with Los Angeles gunning to host the games in 2024, if it were to be selected, there would be a fantastic opportunity to take the game to North America.
We are yet to mention Fiji, and they knew with birth of rugby sevens at the Olympics, they had the chance to not only claim their first ever Olympic medal, but to make it gold. With a population of just 900,000, you may think it is strange that a country so small, and one that isn’t one of the big players in the 15 a side format, can be so brilliant on the sevens circuit. But the way Fiji play, free-flowing and not letting the ball touch the ground with offload after offload out of the tackle, suits sevens down to the ground. Their British coach, Ben Ryan, has eliminated their only weakness, their fitness, and turned them into a near unbeatable side. With their electrifying pace backed up by their bulk, there is no simply stopping them when their on-song, just ask the Great Britain side that were on the receiving end of a 43-7 thrashing in the gold medal match.
So what needs to change in four years’ time when rugby sevens faces its second audition on the Olympic stage? Well a better atmosphere inside the stadium needs to happen, and with the sport rising in Japan at the moment, that should be achieved. There was a hope with the sport now at the Olympics, that many of the famous faces from the 15-a-side game would move over to taste that Olympic experience. But only two big names attempted to go Rio, Australia’s Quade Cooper and New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams. Cooper failed to make the squad, whereas two-time World Cup winner Williams was injured in the All Blacks’ second match of the tournament. Now that players know what it’s all about, they may choose to step into the sevens format after the World Cup in Japan in 2019, to return for the Tokyo Olympics less than a year later. The IOC were curious over why only 12 teams would be in competition in Rio, so for Tokyo I would like to see four extra sides. Samoa, Russia and Portugal are regulars on the World Sevens circuit, and it would be great for some of the smaller nations to get their opportunity, which is what the IOC crave.
It’s been a superb start for rugby sevens at the Olympics but just like the sport itself, it could be over in a flash. The IOC have made strange decisions in the past, exchanging windsurfing for kitesurfing, repeatedly excluding squash and introducing climbing for 2020, so there’s no guessing what the future holds for sevens at the Olympics. But there’s no question that it has been one of the most exciting sports at Rio 2016, and the quality of play has been far greater than the laughable under-23s football. 14 minutes of constant attacking as opposed to a 90 minute 0-0, I know which I’d rather see.