The attack-filled women’s rugby sevens final between Australia and New Zealand set the scene for what is expected to be a tough men’s tournament, starting on Tuesday.
“We’ve just made Australian history, rugby history,” said Ellia Green of Australia after her team defeated rivals New Zealand 24-17 at the Deodoro stadium.
The return of rugby, which was last played at the Olympics in a 15-a-side tournament in the 1924 Paris games, follows hard campaigning by the sport over more than 22 years.
The International Olympic Committee recognised the World Rugby organisation as an official international federation in 1994, laying the foundations for the sport’s inclusion.
But it took another 15 years for the IOC to vote for the sport to be put on the programme for the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
The sport’s inclusion would bring a smile to the face of the founder of the modern Olympics, Frenchmen Pierre de Coubertin, were he alive today.
A keen rugby fan who played and refereed the sport all his life, as the first president of the IOC he ensured the 15-a-side version was included in the Paris 1900, London 1908, Antwerp 1920 and Paris 1924 games.
His successor as IOC president, Count Baillet-Latour, was less of a fan and rugby began its near century-long Olympic hiatus.
The return of the game in the faster sevens short-form might have been a surprise for de Courbertin, though. With two halves of seven minutes (10 minutes in the final), the emphasis in the short version is on speed.
In their match, New Zealand took the lead on the World Series champions Australia early with a try from Kayla McAlister.
Australia’s Emma Tonegato responded with a quick try. Then the referee sent off Portia Woodman of New Zealand, the tournament’s top try-scorer, with a yellow card for a deliberate knockdown around halftime.
Her temporary absence from the field sealed the deal for the Kiwis as Australia sped through three more tries and two conversions, outpacing New Zealand as they found gaps in its defences.
New Zealand forced two tries in the final two minutes and a conversion but by this time the Australians were already ecstatically celebrating Olympic gold.
As the Aussies left the field, the disappointed Kiwis performed a tearful but defiant haka for their fans. Their disappointment was more than matched by that of Britain, however, which ceded the bronze to Canada 33-10.
The inclusion of the fun-loving sevens format, made popular by the Hong Kong tournament that attracts 120,000 party-going fans over three days, made for an animated crowd at Deodoro.
The venue’s remote location in Rio’s outer suburbs did not damp fans’ enthusiasm, with supporters dancing in the aisles to a samba ensemble before the finals kicked off.
“These are definitely the most passionate fans I have seen all week but access has had a big impact on attendance,” said Kevin Gibson, Latin American chief executive of Robert Walters, the human resources company, which sponsors the Brazilian rugby team.
He said the Olympics came as rugby was growing in popularity in Brazil, which previously had not taken to the sport despite its popularity in neighbouring Argentina.
Legend has it that Englishman Charles Miller, the man who introduced organised soccer to Brazil, brought an oval ball as well as the spherical variety to the country in 1894. But it was the round type that caught the nation’s attention.
With the Olympics, rugby has recovered some of that ground in Brazil, with the country’s women’s sevens team defeating Japan in Rio and featuring in the top 10 of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series in 2015-16, having been champions of South America on 12 occasions since 2004.
After the Rio matches, however, there were some concerns over whether there was too much of a disparity between the top and bottom teams in the sevens.
“In the world series [World Rugby Sevens Series] we do need some more tournaments, I believe, to make sure other teams can participate and that the current teams are getting more competition,” said Australia coach Tim Walsh after the women’s final.
“At any Olympics there tends to be a disparity in the top and the bottom teams. But you look at the top eight — very, very competitive.”
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