Rugby 7s: Rio’s Golden Sport

Rio 2016 marked the first time rugby union had featured at a Summer Olympic Games since the USA won gold in 1924. At that time, there were only 3 male teams featured and the rugby played was on the 15-man variety. Here in Rio, rugby’s return has been in the shorter form of Rugby 7s, with both a men’s and a women’s competition, each featuring 12 countries playing over 3 days.

Australia won gold in the women’s tournament with victory over New Zealand, while Canada beat Great Britain to the bronze. In the men’s competition, Ben Ryan’s Fiji made history by winning their country’s first ever Olympic medal with an emphatic win against Great Britain in the final, whilst South Africa won bronze ahead of surprise semi-finalists Japan.

Though the stadium rarely seemed to fill up as much as expected, from everything I have seen on social media it would appear that both tournaments were well received and it certainly feels like both rugby 7s and also women’s rugby as a whole gained some new fans over the 6 days of competition. When officials begin planning for future Olympic Games, I am sure there will be plenty of support to keep the sport in the Games beyond 2020.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see as much of the rugby as I wanted, but from what I did manage to see and from what I have read online, here are my thoughts on the competition, focusing mainly on the men’s tournament as this is what I was able to watch more of.

Scheduling: I liked the decision of the tournament organisers to hold the women’s tournament ahead of the men’s tournament. Rugby is unfortunately a sport that many people would say women can’t play well as they are unable to cope with the physicality of the sport. It was clear watching the tournaments that the women play a very different style of 7s to the men, with a non-stop high tempo attack compared to the very stop-start, varied intensity of the men’s tournament. By putting the women’s tournament ahead of the men’s, it meant that the women were being judged in their own right rather than being constantly compared to the men. As a result, I saw a lot of positive opinions on social media on the way that women’s rugby was being played and also on the ladies’ credentials as athletes. While I think the whole 6 days was a great advert for Rugby 7s, I think the first 3 days were a fantastic advert for women’s rugby and will have hopefully significantly increased its fan base.

Kicking: When I first started playing a bit of 7s at uni with a group of mates, we always used to start our training with a fair amount of kicking the ball around and testing each other under the high ball while the stragglers were getting ready. This used to frustrate one of our lads (the only one with any previous 7s experience) as he always argued that the only times the ball should ever be kicked in 7s were restarts and conversions. Having watched a lot of 7s myself since then, I would argue that kicking in open play does have its place, but that it’s something that should be done sparingly and that the main focus of attacking in 7s should be to keep possession and manipulate the space to work your way downfield. I was therefore surprised by how much players appeared to be kicking the ball during the Olympics compared to in the World Series. Teams often preferred kicking a penalty to touch over taking a quick tap, and also seemed more than happy to boot the ball downfield for the speedsters to chase after. This led to a number of poor kicks going out of play, gifting the opposition a line-out in great field position.

I would be interested to know the reasoning behind this different mentality. The only reason I could imagine would be that they saw kicking the ball downfield as being a lower-risk option to playing out from their own 22. While a full season competition like the World Series would minimise the effect of 1 poor result, in a one-off tournament like the Olympic Games, one handling error in the 22 could be the difference between the gold or an early exit.

Curse of the commentator: Maybe the reason that everyone was kicking away the ball is that they were listening to the BBC commentary and doing as they suggested. Sir Clive Woodward is undoubtedly very knowledgeable when it comes to rugby, but he is not the person that I would pick as co-commentator for a 7s event. His knowledge of 7s tactics and the players on show seemed very limited and every other comment during the men’s games seemed to be a suggestion that the team with the ball should kick it away or an explanation of how the strength of the forwards was the reason that a team was winning. From what I read he was also struggling to do much better in the women’s tournament, with a lot of people complaining at his frequent description of the players as ‘girls’ and his confusion as to who was playing (regardless of whether you like the name Team GB or not, it certainly wasn’t England on show). For a sport as exciting as 7s, Woodward is also not the most exciting of commentators by any means. Surely the BBC would have done better asking Jonathan Davies to partner Eddie Butler or, even better, a player who has recent experience of rugby 7s, perhaps someone who had recently retired or a current player unable to train due to an ongoing injury. Or maybe I’m just too used to hearing Sean Maloney’s commentary during the World Series.

Give the ref a yellowI’m not picking out any particular referee here, but it seemed that the quality of officiating during the tournament was poor. The number of penalties given for offences at the breakdown was substantial, yet I cannot remember a single player receiving a yellow card for such an offence, meaning that players were happy to continue slowing the ball illegally as they knew they could get away with it. Conversely, any tackle that was even close to being high – except for one by an Argentinian on Dan Norton in the quarter-final – seemed to result in a player spending 2 minutes on the naughty seat. Many of these penalised high tackles seemed questionable too, most notably one given against Kenya when they were ahead against New Zealand. As Scott Curry dived for the corner, he was tackled around the chest and shoulder area by Collins Injera, knocking on in the process. However Injera was given a yellow for the high tackle and a penalty try was given as well. While in my opinion the tackle was perfectly legal anyway, I feel that the penalty try was more than sufficient punishment and that the yellow all but killed off Kenya’s chances in the match. I understand that officials are asked to clamp down on certain offences, but the general performance of the officials on show did not seem of the same quality we see throughout the season on the World Series.

On a more positive note, I was happy to see South African Rasta Rasivhenge picked to referee the men’s gold medal match. He has impressed me for a number of seasons on the World Series and did a good job in the final. He recently refereed his first Test match in the 15-man code at the start of July, and I am sure we will be hearing much more about him as time goes on.

Everyone loves a good story: As well as being a great tournament with a high level of rugby on show, there were some fantastic storylines in the men’s tournament:

  • When former England 7s coach Ben Ryan was signed on as the new coach of the Fijian 7s team in 2013, he spent the early months working without pay due the national union’s financial issues. The team had not won the World Series since the 2005/06 season and were not up to the standard that he wanted. The Fijians have always had a natural flair and Ryan harnessed that with improved fitness and organisation to create a style of rugby that was effective yet still beautiful. They have now won the World Series in the last 2 years and followed it up with the gold medal in Rio. This looks to be a team of grounded individuals who are playing a game that they love and taking great pride in representing their nation. I can’t imagine that there are many people who begrudge Fiji the gold, they well and truly deserved it!
  • Before the tournament started, I suggested that Great Britain would be lucky to make it to the semi-finals of the men’s competition, due to their lack of experience playing together (having only come together in May) and the poor results of the representative nations in the World Series. I have never been more happy to be proved wrong! It may not have been an easy road for Simon Amor’s side, with a number of close victories – Kenya were the only team they ran away against – and even needing extra time to beat Argentina in the quarter-finals after a thrilling math ended 0-0. My fingernails certianly didn’t appreciate how close the matches against Argentina and South Africa were! Though they were comprehensively outplayed in the final by Fiji, they can be extremely proud of what they have done, and I’m sure many would admit that winning silver would have been nothing more than a dream as they arrived in Rio. I really enjoyed the joining of England, Scotland and Wales and think it would be fantastic if Team GB can play 7s on a more regular basis moving forward.
  • Japan shocked the world in 2015 when they beat South Africa in their opening match of the Rugby World Cup. The 7s team pulled off arguably as big a shock in their opener in Rio, beating one of the pre-tournament favourites, New Zealand, 12-14. After narrowly losing to Great Britain in their 2nd game, a win over Kenya saw them qualify second in their group. They beat France in the quarter-finals but a semi-final against Fiji was a step too far and they eventually finished the tournament 4th after losing to the Blitzbokke in the bronze medal match. The Japanese we not even a core team in the most recent season of the World Series, but having earned promotion for next season, it will be interesting and exciting to see how they perform over a whole season. With the 2019 Rugby World Cup being held in Japan, the more success the national rugby teams can have, the more the country will take to the sport.
  • My pre-tournament prediction for the silver medal, New Zealand had a shocker in Rio. Losing 2 players to injury in their loss to Japan was the worst way to start the tournament, and it took until the final day for them to fully recover, eventually finishing 5th overall, having qualified as one of the 2 best runners-up but losing to Fiji in the quarter-finals. To lose players of the quality of Sonny Bill Williams and Joe Webber so early in the tournament will severely harm the chances of any team, but Gordan Tietjen’s side looked a shadow of the team regular followers of 7s know they can be, with the creative Gillies Kaka used in a limited fashion. The All Blacks 7s players and staff will be disappointed with the result here and I’m sure they will do everything they can to win the upcoming World Series and will also target victory in the 2018 World Cup Sevens.
  • As I looked at the lineups for Great Britain’s semi-final against South Africa, my thoughts were not on the 7 names starting for the Blitzbokke, but on one who was missing from the squad, Seabelo Senatla. The top scorer in the 2015/16 World Series was forced out of the tournament through injury and replaced by Worcester scrum-half Francois Hougaard. Due to a (ridiculous) rule, Senatla was not considered eligible for a medal as he had not been included in the match day squad for the semi-final or bronze medal match, despite having played in all of South Africa’s pool matches. Injury replacement Hougaard chose to give his medal to Senatla, thereby going without one himself. While this rule clearly needs looking at ahead of 2020, this selfless act from Hougaard deserves all the admiration he is getting and much more. Hopefully someone is currently in the process of organising an additional medal for the team so that both players can get the medal they earned.

“I gave Sea my medal before I left as I believe he deserves it more. The medal is really special to me but he deserves it” – Hougaard’s tweet confirming that he had given away his medal

 

These are of course the ramblings of someone who only got to see about a dozen matches over the entire 6 days, so I would love to hear your views on the tournament. Do you feel that there’s something I missed? I would love to hear your views on the tournament, both what you feel went well and also what you feel could have been better. And of course the big question after such a big development in a sport: where do things go from here?

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