As Rio looms large we take a look at the Olympic Games’ newest addition, Rugby Sevens, how Team GB has prepared and how their opponents shape up.
After a 92 year absence rugby has returned to the Olympic Games, however it is the first time that the shorter form of the game has ever been played on the greatest sporting stage. Rugby 15s was played at the 1900, 1908, 1920, and 1924 Olympic Games, with France & Australia taking gold in 1900 and 1908 respectively and the USA being crowned champions in ’20 and ’24.
The road to Rio started in October 2009 where, at the 121st International Olympic Committee session in Copenhagen, Rugby Sevens was voted (81 votes to 8) in favour of inclusion on the Olympic Games Programme for 2016 and 2020 and thus this fast-paced, youthful version of the game, which embodies the Olympic ideals of friendship and fair play, will be introduced to millions around the world.
At the end of May, after the conclusion of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the 25-man Team GB training squad assembled. Including players from both the 15s and 7s forms of the game, the squad was made up of 15 Englishmen, 5 Welshmen, and 5 Scots. Also a squad of 23 GB Sevens players were selected for the Women’s team, who had been training as a wider GB group since October.
The newly formed Men’s Team GB got their campaign underway with the Rugby Europe Moscow Sevens (the first round of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix) on the 4th of June, in which two teams were entered into the competition; GB Lions and GB Royals. The Lions, led by Tom Mitchell, came third whilst Luke Treharne captained the Royals to Plate victory. The women kicked off their campaign a week later at their first and only warm-up tournament, Kazan Sevens, where they also fielded two teams and went on to mirror the Men’s performance, with the Lionesses coming third and Royals winning the Plate.
The men continued preparations with the ‘7s and the city’ tournament in London on the 2nd of July, where the Lions and Royals both enjoyed success; beating France, Italy, England Academy, Wales, Barbados and Samurai on the way to the final where they played each other, the Lions emerging victorious 27-14.
The next tournament was the Mitsubishi Motors Exeter 7s, where both teams came away with silverware, the Lions beating Germany 31-19 in the Plate final, and the Royals being crowned champions after triumphing 33-17 over France in the final. Exeter 7s was then followed by the third and final round of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Sevens Series a week later, in Poland, where the Royals met the Lions in an all GB final which resulted in a 26-14 Lions victory, ending preparations on a high.
The high standard of rugby that had been played by the whole squad over the warm up tournaments left both Team GB Men’s coach Simon Amor and Women’s coach Simon Middleton with a very tough decision when selecting the final squads to travel to Rio. Amor selected Tom Mitchell as captain, who is joined by Dan Norton (the fourth-highest try scorer in series history), James Rodwell (who set a new record of 69 consecutive events this year), 15s player and World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the year 2015 nominee Mark Bennett, Dan Bibby, Phil Burgess, Sam Cross, James Davies, Alex Davis, Ollie Lindsay Hague, Mark Robertson and Marcus Watson. Meaning the squad is comprised of 8 Englishmen, 2 Welshmen and 2 Scots.
Simon Middleton then named Emily Scarratt GB Women’s captain, who will be joined by Claire Allan, Abbie Brown, Alice Richardson, Danielle Waterman, Katy Mclean, Heather Fisher, Emily Scott, Natasha Hunt, Joanne Watmore, Amy Wilson-Hardy and the Welshwoman Jasmine Joyce, who is the only non-English player in the squad.
Despite the success of Team GB’s preparations, they will come up against stiff competition in Rio. Both the Men’s and Women’s teams are seeded 4th, the men behind favourites Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand, the women behind favourites Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The men find themselves in group C, alongside Japan, 2016 Singapore Sevens champions Kenya, and 3rd seeded New Zealand, who won the last world cup in 2013 and are strengthened by the inclusion of Rugby World Cup 2015 winner Sonny Bill Williams who is the only one of many high profile 15s players who managed to make it to the Olympics. GB will have to beat Kenya and Japan to ensure a place in the quarter finals, and a major clash against the All Blacks will likely decide who tops the group.
2007 World Cup winner with South Africa and ‘07 IRB Player of the Year Bryan Habana, Australia stars Quade Cooper, Nick ‘The Honey Badger’ Cummins and Fiji’s former rugby league and NFL star Jarryd Hayne all failed to make it into their respective squads after spending most of the sevens seasons with their country, with the exception of Hayne, who retired from the NFL on the 15th of May 2016 and made his debut for Fiji in the season-ending tournament in London a week later. This shows the quality of the competition and how high the standard of rugby is, and that there will be by no means any easy games, however due to the nature of this form of the game, there will be all to play for and every team will fancy their chances.
The women are also in group C, and will face 3rd seed Canada, hosts Brazil and Japan. Although Canada are the top seed in their group, they finished on level points with England in the HSBC Sevens Series and as all but one of the GB players are from England, they should feel confident of topping the group with a fairly straight forward path into the latter stages of the tournament. Unless a large upset occurs, The race for the Women’s Gold medal is likely to be a one-horse race, as the favourites Australia won the HSBC Sevens Series with relative ease this year, winning 3 out of 5 tournaments, coming second and third at the remaining two tournaments. However the battle for silver and bronze will be an interesting one, contested by New Zealand, Canada, Team GB and France, meaning it is all up for grabs and will certainly come down to performance on the day and quality of preparation, resulting in what is sure to be an excellent watch.
For the Men’s tournament I think Fiji will take the gold, having had a very strong season, winning in Dubai, Las Vegas and Hong Kong on the way to the overall Sevens Series victory. However the fight for the silver and bronze will be a heavily contested one with South Africa and the All Blacks both having good seasons, finishing second and third respectively and therefore being favourites to take the silver and bronze, but I think the fresh challenge of Team GB may upset the balance. Despite the fact that England, Scotland and Wales finished 8th, 10th and 12th respectively in the HSBC Sevens Series, I think the combination of the three nations, the additions of 15s players such as Mark Bennett and Marcus Watson, as well as the high quality preparation and high amount of game time the players have had in run up to the Olympics may surprise the likes of South Africa and the All Blacks.
The Women’s tournament starts on Saturday the 6th of August at 3pm BST, with the final being held on Monday the 8th at 11pm BST and the Men’s tournament starts on Tuesday the 9th of August at 3pm BST, with the final being held on Thursday the 11th at 11pm BST. All matches are being played at the Deodoro Stadium and will be available to watch through BBC’s Olympic Coverage.
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