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?

Road to Rio – Chasing the Olympic Dream

First of all, congratulations to Ben Ryan and the Fiji Rugby 7s team who last weekend completed the defence of their World Series crown. With the Series over for another year, thoughts now move to Brazil, where rugby will be making its long-awaited return to the Olympic Games.

Rugby was last played at the Olympics in 1924, when the USA won Gold in the 15-man code ahead of France and Romania, the only other nations to compete. This will be the début of Rugby 7s at the Olympics, with 12 teams competing over 2 days. As hosts, Brazil qualified automatically. So far they have been joined by Fiji, Great Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, USA, France, Japan, Australia and Kenya. The final qualifier will be decided at a 16-team competition in Monaco in mid-June. Anything can happen in a tournament, but it is likely that Samoa or Canada will be the victor and take the final Olympic spot.

Since the Olympic return was announced, a number of unions have pushed funds towards the 7-man code in order to give their nation the best chance of Olympic glory. A number of nations have also opened their door to 15s players who they hope could help them get a place on the podium. But which teams have the best chance of getting a medal?

Fiji

Having won the World Series the last 2 years, Fiji have to be the favourites to win Gold. Always a fan favourite, the Fijians may not be the best defensively, but their natural skill and attacking ability allows them to often outscore the opposition. You have to go back to the 2010/11 season to find the last time that Fiji finished outside the top 3 in the World Series. Of course, the Olympics is a single tournament, so a weak defence could prove costly, but with experienced sevens stars such as Jasa Veremalua, Osea Kolinisau (both in this season’s Dream Team), Samisoni Viriviri and Semi Kunatani, you can guarantee there won’t be a boring moment when Fiji are on the pitch.

Glasgow lock and offload king Leone Nakarawa has also spent some time back with the 7s team. The ability to offload out of a tackle, thereby taking the tackler and maybe even extra defenders out of the game, always comes in handy in rugby, but probably even more so in 7s, where there are only 7 men to cover the whole pitch. There may also be a spot in the Olympic squad for cross-code star Jarryd Hayne, who made his Fiji 7s début at Twickenham last weekend. His performances in the NRL and NFL suggest that if he can quickly get up to speed with the style of play, he could be one of the breakout stars in Rio.

Bringing in new players so close to the tournament, especially those with limited experience of the game, will always be risky, but Fiji have the right man at the helm to give them the best possible chance. Former England 7s Head Coach Ben Ryan has done a great job installing more order to the Fijian play whilst keeping the natural flair that everyone knows and loves.

Likely to have the support of neutral fans due to their style of play, I fully expect to see Fiji on the podium and would not be surprised to see them win gold.

New Zealand

Like Fiji, New Zealand will always be pushing for the latter stages at individual tournaments, and will always be towards the top in the end-of-season standings. With the experience of IRB Hall of Fame member Gordon Tietjens guiding them, you can guarantee that the All Blacks Sevens team will be doing everything they can to win gold at Rio. 44 players have moved on from Titch’s squads to be capped by the All Blacks in the 15-man code.

A number of 15s players have spent some or all of the season with the 7s squad in the hopes of making the Olympics team. Most notably are World Cup winners Liam Messam (one of those to graduate from international 7s to 15s) and Sonny Bill Williams. I mentioned earlier the benefit of having a player who can frequently offload out the tackle and Williams showed that perfectly against South Africa in the pool stages of the Wellington 7s, where was tackled by 3 players but till managed to get the offload to allow Joe Webber to run in untouched. Titch also has a number of 7s regulars to pick from as well, including Gillies Kaka, Tim Mikkelson and DJ Forbes.

New Zealand may have only finished 3rd in the World Series this season, but given the amount of squad rotation due to injuries and experimentation, that is still a good result. They were also able to win 3 tournaments this season, the only team other than Fiji (also 3) to win multiple tournaments.

As a team they also have great experience of winning the big tournaments, having won 2 Rugby World Cup Sevens events (2001 & 2013) and 4 Commonwealth Games gold medals (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010) under Tietjens. This gives me confidence that New Zealand can grab a medal, and they are probably the team with the best chance of beating the Fijians to gold.

South Africa

Though they only won a single tournament, the Blitzbokke’s consistency saw them beat New Zealand to 2nd place in the overall standings in the World Series. Along with Fiji, they were the only team to field 2 players in this season’s Dream Team: Kwagga Smith and Seabelo Senatla. We’ve known for a couple of season that Senatla was a real talent, but he made it perfectly clear this year, scoring a whopping 66 tries in the World Series. By comparison, the next highest amount of tries was 45 from Perry Baker. Senatla also narrowly missed out to Madison Hughes as the top points scorer in the series, scoring 330 points to Hughes’ 331. There is no substitute for pace in 7s and Senatla has plenty of that.

Bryan Habana is another high profile name looking to make his national team for the Olympics, as is Worcester scrum half Francois Hougaard, but with the quality of players available for South Africa – including Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Roscko Speckman and captain Kyle Brown – there is no guarantee either of them will actually make it to Rio as anything more than a spectator.

South Africa also come into this as current Commonwealth Games Champions, experience that could prove vital in their quest for gold. I think if the draw goes in their favour the Blizbokke could get gold, but find it much more likely they will be fighting for the bronze.

Australia

The Aussies are a difficult teams to judge. Runners up this season in the USA and also their home event, they struggled to consistently come away from events with a decent points haul, but were still able to make it to 4th in the overall standings. They may not have the as many ‘superstar’ players as some of the teams mentioned here, but their ability to play well as a team means they could very easily cause an upset against the more favoured teams. I can see them making the semis but, barring a favourable draw, expect them to just miss out on the podium.

USA

USA Rugby have put a big focus on 7s to help the development of rugby in the USA. The 7s team is not used to develop players from the national 15-a-side team, but has also been pushing to maximise their chances of Olympic glory, having offered their players professional contracts since 2012.

As discussed in a previous post a number of athletes have crossed over from other sports in order to try and win a medal. The most notable name in recent months has been Super Bowl Champion Nate Ebner, who was given leave by the New England Patriots to try out for the Olympic inclusion, having previously played for the national 7s team as a teenager. Former Philadelphia Eagle Perry Baker has had a great season, second only to Senatla in the try scoring charts and 5th overall on points scored, also making the season’s Dream Team.

This season’s top points scorer Madison Hughes is likely to be leading the team in Rio, and will possibly be joined by Zack Test, Danny Barrett and Thretton Palamo – all of whom featured for the USA during the 2015 Rugby World Cup – and the fastest man in world rugby Carlin Isles.

The USA team has come on leaps and bounds since Mike Friday took over. Before the 2014/15 season, their best finish in the World Series had been 10th, but they have now finished 6th 2 years running and also won their first ever tournament last year at Twickenham.

The USA maybe don’t have the strength in depth that some of the other sides do, but on their day and with a favourable draw, the USA could be dark horses to finish on the podium.

Great Britain

Great Britain are probably the hardest team to judge at this moment. They have not yet had any serious time together as a team, which puts them at a disadvantage, but hey have also been able to have a larger number of players taking part in the World Series each week thanks to them competing as 3 separate countries.

As individual countries, their results don’t make the best of reading for Team GB fans: England finishing 8th overall, Scotland 10th and Wales 12th. They managed one tournament victory between them, Scotland’s win last weekend. However what must be taken into account here is that England’s squad, much like the All Blacks, has been frequently changed this year to try and help keep players like Tom Mitchell and Dan Norton at peak fitness for the Olympics, whilst also to try and deal with injuries to regulars like Dan Bibby.

Head coach Simon Amor’s Olympic plans will ave also been hindered by the lack of help from the national unions or the clubs. Joe Simpson and Mark Bennett are probably the most notable names from 15s to be picked for the training squad, however unlike Williams and Habana, they have not been released by their clubs to spend any time on the World Series this season, giving them a limited time to transition to the shorter form of the game. Marcus Watson was also not released by Newcastle until their season was over. Having more experience of 7s, he may be able to get back up to speed quicker but there is no guarantee of that.

This lack of time on the sevens circuit means that they will have a limited time to gel together, harming their chances, but it does also mean that the opposition will have less of an idea what to expect, which could help balance the field slightly.

Simon Amor will look to get the best out of the players he selects, but at this moment I think a semi final spot would be a fantastic result but would probably require a very favourable draw. At this moment the best chance of a medal for Team GB Rugby would appear to be in the women’s game…

My expected Top 4

  1. Fiji
  2. New Zealand
  3. South Africa
  4. USA