Men's rugby ready for Rio after 92-year Olympic absence
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Ben Ryan took his gold-medal favorite Fiji men's squad along to watch the women's rugby sevens quarterfinals, hoping their presence would inspire another Fijian team to win a race for the Pacific island nation's first Olympic medal.
It wasn't to be, with the Fijian women losing to Britain on Sunday night and leaving it to coach Ryan and his sevens world series champions to make history in Rio de Janeiro.
Fiji has competed at the Olympics since 1956 but never won a medal, although they've never had a chance to compete in the national sport at the Summer Games. Rugby, in the abbreviated sevens format, is returning to the Olympics for the first time in 92 years.
Fijians all over the world think that's all Ryan's men need to break the medal drought in a competition that kicks off Tuesday.
But a New Zealand squad containing Sonny Bill Williams — a two-time World Cup winner in the 15-a-side game and the highest-profile star competing in rugby's return to the Olympics after 92 years — won as many titles (3) as Fiji on the 10-stop world sevens circuit.
The depth of the 12-team men's competition is considerably greater than the women's tournament, which ended Monday with No. 1-ranked Australia and No. 2-ranked New Zealand in the final.
As well as the New Zealand men, 12-time world series champion in sevens, other genuine medal contenders include No. 2-ranked South Africa, No. 4 Australia, No. 5 Argentina, the No. 6-ranked United States and No. 7 Kenya, which had a breakthrough season in 2016.
South Africa has been runner-up in the last four world series and contains some of the season-leading individual players, including prolific try-scorer Seabelo Senatla.
"It is an exciting time for the rugby sevens team here in Rio," South Africa coach Neil Powell said. "There is a good spirit among the players and we are confident we can deliver the goods."
Ryan, who took over as Fiji's sevens coach in 2013, knows his team is expected to win and is trying just to ensure they're peaking at the perfect time.
The Fijians won the opening round of the world series the last two seasons, and have won four of the last five three-day tournaments, Ryan said, suggesting he knew how to time his run.
The South Africans are in Pool B with Australia, France and Spain. New Zealand, Britain, Kenya and Japan are in Pool C and the Fijians were drawn into Pool A with the United States, Argentina and Brazil.
The Americans are the defending gold medalists, having won in 1924, but the format for the Olympics and the rugby world order has changed significantly since then.
"It's nice having a little bit of history, I don't know if it's something we can directly pull upon," said U.S. captain Madison Hughes, the leading point-scorer in the last world sevens series. "It was so long ago, but it's a cool bit of history and we're definitely looking to go out there and defend that gold medal."
The U.S. team won its first title on the world sevens circuit in 2015 and keeps growing in strength, with the speed of Perry Baker and Carlin Isles out wide to supplement the muscle of NFL player Nate Ebner, who was granted permission by the New England Patriots to play at the Olympics.
"We have such different talent on our team, and we have brought them together, and I think it's about having those different balances of athletic background," Hughes said. "You have got guys who are specialized in one area, guys that are specialized in another, and then we've got a couple of rugby heads in the middle, trying to pull it all together."
Hughes said the nature of the fast and furious sevens game ensured any team could win the gold medal.
"You saw it in the World Series this year, there were so many different winners," he said. "It is incredibly competitive, incredibly balanced, and I think if you were saying you know who is going to win the gold medal, you'd be lying."