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Fluid Fiji defeat Team GB in Olympic rugby sevens bronze medal match

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

When sportspeople talk about tough journeys they are often waxing metaphorical, but Saiasi Fuli was speaking literally as he described Fiji’s arduous route to an Olympic bronze medal in women’s sevens.

“I think this is the 16th week we haven’t seen our families,” the Fiji head coach said following a 21-12 win over Great Britain, three days after the Fiji men’s side had retained the Olympic title by defeating New Zealand. “It was a tough, tough journey.”

Related: Fiji’s sevens triumph is symbolic of their ‘work together, love one another’ spirit | Ben Ryan

A four-month slog of training camps and quarantine bubbles in Fiji, Australia and Japan had a happy ending – not that the separation is quite over. With the country of about 900,000 people reporting more than a thousand Covid-19 cases per day, the squads will have to endure another fortnight of hotel quarantine before they can show their medals to friends and loved ones in person.

“It’s hard for us,” said Reapi Ulunisau, who scored one of three tries against a Britain side that fell 14-0 behind in the first half and never recovered. “This is for them.”

Fuli’s job has encompassed logistics as well as tactics. “Three or four of them, it’s their first time to fly out of Fiji. It’s a big challenge for us to manage that and come out here and play well in a very tough pool,” he said. “Some of them, they tried to break camp and run home and we had to get them back and keep them at the camp and remind them that the journey will be quite a long one until we reach Tokyo.”

Team GB players show their emotion after defeat by Fiji denied them a bronze medal.
Team GB players show their emotion after defeat by Fiji denied them a bronze medal. Photograph: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Fiji lost to France then beat Canada and Brazil in the group stage before stunning the 2016 Olympic champions, Australia, 14-12 in the quarter-finals. They gave New Zealand an almighty scare in the last four, going down 22-17 after extra time. The Black Ferns Sevens progressed to claim the gold medal with a 26-12 victory over France, who ousted Britain in the semi-finals, 26-19.

“We identify them from athletics, some playing touch rugby in their village, and winning the bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics is massive,” Fuli said. “They just learned rugby just a year ago. They had no idea about [what rugby is]. So we had to do a massive job and 60-70% of our effort is just concentrating on core skills, how to catch, how to pass, tackle technique. That’s before we implement tactical stuff.”

Scott Forrest, the GB head coach, could only admire his opponents. “They’ve got a good group of athletes there, their offloading skills were unbelievable,” he said. “That’s probably the standout moment of the whole tournament, in terms of how impressive Fiji have been. How far they’ve come as a team is just so good to see when you think of how strong their men’s programme has been for years. To see their women’s programme at that level now, for me it’s brilliant.”

Britain’s men also narrowly missed out on a medal in Tokyo, losing 17-12 to Argentina. Forrest’s squad huddled after their loss here, reflecting on their disappointment but also their achievement. Money problems ahead of the competition had cast doubt over whether Britain would even field teams in Tokyo, until funds were secured last December through a partnership with the National Lottery.

“Us as a programme have only been together for five months and six months ago we had absolutely nothing, so to come fourth, not a lot of people expected that,” said the Welsh winger Jasmine Joyce. She is convinced that if a deal had been struck sooner, allowing for more preparation time, the fast-improving side would have won a medal in Japan.

With the future beyond this year uncertain, Forrest hopes that this near-miss of a medal will persuade the Scottish, Welsh and English governing bodies to keep GB sevens alive. “Three unions trying to come together, it’s never easy for legitimate reasons. There’s no grudge from us, ultimately these players just want to play sevens full time,” he said.

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