World Rugby has a luxury problem – not the niggles and quibbles interlinked with an introduction to the Olympic Games, not the deflated mood surrounding the other new Olympic sport golf, but an on-field conundrum: how can Olympic rugby possibly top last year’s Rugby World Cup? There seems only one way: by the Fiji national team winning the Rugby Sevens tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
Last year’s tournament on English soil was spectacular, an advert for professional sport. In the run-up to the tournament, the All Blacks had been eulogised and praised. They had been lauded and heralded – even in the minds of South Africa’s coach Heyneke Meyer, on the wrong end of a brutal battering in the semi-finals, and former Kiwi legend Sir Graham Henry, the crop of All Blacks (as the New Zealand national rugby team are known) had transcended their own myth and might.
Those prophecies and thoughts turned out to be accurate as the eighth Rugby World Cup climaxed with a trans-Tasman blockbuster final at the Twickenham Stadium in London between New Zealand and Australia, culminating in a resounding 34-17 victory for the All Blacks.
A superb tournament
Nothing befitted the six-week roller-coaster ride of high quality rugby more than the Kiwis lifting the Web Ellis Cup with one last class act, starring the impeccable Dan Carter. It was on the second day that Japan truly galvanised the tournament, masterminding an upset of Herculean proportions by humiliating the Springboks of South Africa in Brighton 34-32 in a game of heart-wringing moments, punctuated by an amalgam of Japanese application, speed and courageous decision-making. It simply was a game for the ages.
Even the knockout phase, often the manifestation of conservative, low-scoring encounters of tight and tense rugby, provided cut-throat action with plenty of dramatic narratives. In the end, as if the World Cup had been an open-and-shut-case from the start, New Zealand were simply the best team.
They demonstrated superb application, but also sportsmanship. That was a feature throughout the World Cup: big, burly men, who played with a ferocious intensity, but never engaged in any of football’s prima donna behaviour. Rugby is brutal and battering, but its players are often advertorials for fair play. That same gentle spirit will pervade in Rio too.
In all, the Rugby World Cup was perfect, so what’s the point of Olympic rugby? The globalisation of the game, naturally. It is the buzzword that drives sports administration. Expansionism entails more money, and more perks. At the same time, more financial resources allows for sport development.
Fast and furious
Last year’s Twickenham blockbuster needed a sequel and rugby sevens is the ideal lubricant to achieve another roller coaster rugby tournament. This version of the game is the anti-thesis of rugby union, often, for the layman, a bemusing and ungainly lateral stasis of vertical passing and drawn-out, repetitive scrums. Rugby sevens is fast and furious, rugby’s Twenty20 version. Indeed, Rahul Dravid would play rugby union, Mahendra Singh Dhoni rugby sevens.
A sevens team features two props, a hooker, a “number nine”, the halfback, and a “number ten”, the first man off the ruck. There is also a centre and a winger. A few utility men cover a number of positions. They all have to cover acres and exploit space. They have to get back in line after defending and get back in line after attacking. In short, rugby sevens is a demanding and specialised sport, no longer the good-for-nothing, poor cousin of rugby union.
In Rio, the International Olympic Committee and World Rugby bank on rugby’s sex appeal. At last year’s Pan American Games in Toronto, the competition, in its second edition, drew sell-out crowds with a rapturous atmosphere as the hosts won both the men’s and women’s tournament. For hosts Brazil, a gold medal is utopian, but a quarter-final, like in Toronto, may be possible. In Group A, they have a crunch game with South American neighbours Argentina.
But Brazil and Spain, who, in a gargantuan shock eliminated much-fancied Samoa, remain the only two outsiders in Rio de Janeiro, in spite of rugby sevens’ global popularity, in particular in South America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and France are among the household names present in Brazil.
And, then there are the Fijians, supposedly the best team in the world. They will go in search of Fiji’s first ever medal since the country’s Olympic debut with a five-member team at the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. They excel in the turbo-charged game and, as tiny island underdogs, may well outplay their local rivals New Zealand and Australia to win gold. Now, that would be rugby at its endearing best.
For all the sports scores and reports, go to The Field.