Sevens and Olympics collide, rugby makes an impact from Rio
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — It was fast, it was furious and the ultra-fit players were colliding at full pace. Rugby sevens certainly grabbed attention in its debut at the Olympic Games.
The New England Patriots watched some of the bruising encounters involving teammate Nate Ebner, sending messages of support. It made headlines in Japan. It virtually shut down an entire Pacific nation.
Unlike golf, which was returning to the Summer Games after a long absence, the best rugby sevens players in the world tackled the Olympic challenge. True to form, they won gold.
The Fijian men, the long-time entertainers and back-to-back world sevens series champions, were one of the best feel-good stories of the games, bringing their tiny country its first Olympic medal and prompting a national holiday. Britain and South Africa picked up the silver and bronze , with Japan finishing a way-beyond-expectations fourth.
The world series champion Australian women beat New Zealand for gold, but only after scraping to a 12-12 tie against an under-rated U.S. team which eventually finished fifth. Canada beat Britain for the bronze, and the Brazil women's team — assembled to represent the host nation — did well enough to qualify for the world series.
World Rugby said the reception had been outstanding in non-traditional rugby markets such as the United States, where USA Rugby had more than 10 million unique visits to their website during the tournament.
"It's been awesome. I wouldn't have done anything differently," said Ebner, who received special permission to play at the Olympics during the NFL offseason. "No regrets, at all."
Ebner scored a last-minute try against Fiji in the group stage that very nearly got the Americans into the playoffs, but for a missed conversion in a 24-19 loss.
"It has been exciting to play. I can only imagine people who haven't seen it — It's got to be exciting to watch," he said. The Pats were watching, he said, and were "saying they're proud. They're with us all the way."
Ebner said the Olympic sevens tournaments had potentially brought the game to a vast new audience in places like America.
"With professional sports, the way they are in the United States, I would never put a ceiling on" potential growth, he said. "I hope people open their eyes and minds to something they've never done before, whether they grew up playing it like I did, or it's something they want to take a stab at later in their life.
"Hopefully everyone embraces it and takes a closer look at it. That's really all I can ask."
The secret to sevens success is in the timing, Fiji coach Ben Ryan said. The game is all over in about a quarter of an hour, leaving time for another 11 just like it. The ball almost never stops, and the action moves quickly across and up-and-down the field.
The crowd for the tournament opening game was only about 1,000, but it grew with multiple matches across the day. Having six games in each three-hour session helps generate a festival atmosphere, and the players often mix with fans during their breaks.
Ryan describes sevens as being like the snack variety of traditional 15-a-side rugby — which was last played at the Olympics in 1924 — making it perfect for a TV audience.
His team attracted attention off the field, too, with other Olympians.
"When the boys come in together ... heads turn," he said. "It's a different look in the village. There's not many islanders in there, but (other athletes) have heard about the Fiji rugby sevens team.
"The whole hope is that rugby adds to the Olympic games, we're not just an also-ran. I think it's having an impact."
The U.S. women produced two big performances, leading Australia 12-5 with a minute to play before the Aussies rallied, and taking New Zealand all the way in a 5-0 quarterfinal loss.
U.S. captain Kelly Griffin said the Olympics highlighted how the game is growing. Players in the women's squads came from other sports including basketball, field hockey and track-and-field.
"I definitely think it adds something about girls and boys both have really powerful bodies and we can go out and be physical and use our bodies for sport," she said.
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said Japan's upset win over powerhouse New Zealand on the opening day of the men's tournament "was amazing," and noted the performances of the Brazilian teams.
"Anybody's that been here in a market that is not a traditional (rugby) market and look how the Brazil women's team qualified for the World Series and then you see the Brazilian men living on first and last tries when they played Fiji," he said. "We've had the opportunity and we thank the IOC for that.
"Hopefully we've showcased our sport on the world stage, and hopefully we've earned the right to be a permanent sport."