Tackling any challenge, women's rugby makes Olympic debut
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — It's promoted as a party, the loud music and dancing in the crowd as synonymous with rugby sevens as the free-running attacking movements and copious tries.
A dozen women's teams made a dent on the Olympics in the debut of the abbreviated rugby format on Saturday, showing they could tackle just about anything.
After the first day of Olympic rugby competition in 92 years, leading contenders New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain had ensured qualification for the quarterfinals, each with a game to spare.
Portia Woodman scored a hat trick of tries in New Zealand's opening 52-0 win against Kenya and added another in the 31-5 win over Spain. Her teammate Kayla McAlister celebrated her birthday with two tries in each game.
Charlotte Caslick matched Woodman's hat trick, scoring three tries in Australia's 53-0 win over Colombia, and added another solo effort in the 36-0 win over Fiji, which capped off the first day of competition. Bianca Farella had two tries in each of Canada's victories — 45-0 against Japan and 38-0 against Brazil — to move into a share of the try-scoring standings. The Canadians will play Britain on Sunday to determine the top spot in Pool C.
Woodman scored in the first minute three times in four halves, missing a fourth try when she dropped the ball only meters from the tryline.
"That little fumble there doesn't happen very often," said Woodman, the leading tryscorer in the women's world series, "but just got to scratch that and get on with it again."
Fiji opened with a 12-7 win against the United States and produced the biggest hit of the day when Lavenia Tinai's big tackle completely shut down a promising American counter-attack in the last minute. The U.S. rallied with 48-0 win over Colombia to keep its chances of progressing alive ahead of a daunting last group match against world series champion Australia.
There was no doubt among the players about women's rugby belonging at the Olympics. Woodman pointed to the kiwi flags in the crowd and said the experience was "awesome."
U.S. forward Kathryn Johnson said the feeling is "pretty insane."
"It's kind of unreal how much this could help grow the game — especially women's sports," Johnson said. "Having a full-contact game in the Olympics is pretty amazing."
The crowd grew for Brazil's games in both sessions, but not even the singing, samba-dancing fans could lift the host team. A dropped goal just before halftime triggered celebrations in the 29-3 opening loss to Britain — Brazil's only points of the day.
When Karen Paquin scored for Canada in the first minute of the second game, it was greeted by loud boos from yellow-clad Brazilian fans behind the goalposts. When Paquin reached over to score in the corner just before halftime, the crowd reaction was more subdued.
France advanced with two wins, posting some early historic marks. Camille Grassineau crossing for the first try and the French team registering the first win in Olympic rugby sevens — 24-7 against Spain.
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said it was a good start for Olympic sevens, and ticket sales were expected to average around 70 percent across the six days of the women's and men's tournaments.
"Everything is working very well. The players have turned up and are playing a great brand of rugby," Gosper said. "We've had good atmosphere — (we're) really happy with it."
IOC president Thomas Bach watched the U.S-Fiji match, sitting beside Indian cricket great Sachin Tendulkar.
Rugby is making its return to the Olympics for the first time since 1924, when the U.S. men won the 15-a-side tournament. The 12-team tournaments run over three days, with the women's final set for Monday. The men's competition starts Tuesday.