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Wide open fields make Olympic rugby sevens a must-watch in Tokyo

·6 min read

Sevens. We haven’t seen a lot of it recently. The last World Sevens Series event was almost a year and a half ago. One sport that was going to feel the full force of the pandemic was sevens. With men’s and women’s tournaments often combined – that’s 28 teams and staff from all over the globe descending on a city for a week.

Covid didn’t just suspend proceedings, it made some unions disband their teams and put the entire abbreviated game at risk of a major dismantling or – worse – disappearance. But, everyone has found a way. New programmes, in the case of Great Britain, adapted, rolled with protocol and procedure. Though livelihoods and careers have been at stake, those at the core – the players and staff – have handled it amazingly.

Related: Tokyo 2020 – all your key Olympic questions answered

Their payoff is the Olympic Games. Last time in Rio, sevens’ debut was a roaring success. Amazing matches, countries not regulars on Olympic podiums taking medals and standards across the board sky-high. Huge endorsement by the IOC and World Rugby followed – it couldn’t have been any better.

We were all on debut in Rio. Coming to the Olympics for the first time can affect performance and some teams did underperform. This time, there are plenty of second-timers in the various teams and many will use their previous experiences as fuel to flourish on the field.

Argentina’s men’s team are worth a mention. They missed a sitter of a drop-goal to move into the semi-finals last time and they come into these games having won all the preparatory tournaments they have entered. A podium place is very possible.

Their victorious opponents that day were Great Britain. Since January both the GB men’s and women’s sides have been on full-time contracts and training at the world-class facilities at Loughborough University. Lottery funding stepped in and saved them. England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union disbanded their national programmes and the players and staff lost their jobs. Under the captaincy of the brilliant playmaker Tom Mitchell and with the game’s top try-scorer of all time, Dan Norton, still playing the house down, they will have a lot of reasons to prove those that disbanded their programmes wrong.

The men have taken a risky route though, not selecting a genuine forward in their squad of English and Scottish players, so their success will also be largely determined by the performance of the 25-year-old centre Harry Glover. Post-Tokyo, he will be playing for Stade Français. I think it’s fair to compare him with the style of play of Sonny Bill Williams. He offloads just like the great man and he is not too far away physically. I think he is good enough to flourish for England at XVs and is one to watch and admire.

Reigning champions Fiji, though, have perhaps the best pound-for-pound rugby player of any code or style on the planet – Semi Radradra. Neutrals will switch the television on when he’s playing for Bristol Bears in XVs. He’s only got seven players to run past this week in Tokyo, so get your schedules out and tune in to him and Jerry Tuwai (recently voted world sevens player of the decade). If they keep their discipline it’s hard to not see a repeat of 2016.

New Zealand will prove perhaps their biggest opponent – the reigning world and Commonwealth champions have peaked at the right time for major events after poor performances in Rio. Meanwhile, South Africa’s brilliant double world championship-winning coach, Neil Powell, will not be there. A positive Covid test means he is in isolation and will be communicating with them from home. They have also lost a lot of their star players – Cheslin Kolbe, for example, was playing in 2016. With all those odds stacked against them, their backs against the wall and hard times at home, the “Blitzboks” could pull off the performance of the tournament.

Apart from South Korea, who are way out of their depth, any of the other 11 sides can beat each other. The USA have Perry Baker, who has twice been world player of the year, back after a broken leg. He is sublime and they are a real threat too.

Australia are led by Tim Walsh, who coached their women’s team to glory and will be looking for a repeat with the men. Hehas brought in Samu Kerevi, the XVs star, to bolster their chances. Then there’s Ireland, who qualified through the repechage with a real team effort and have gas and guile; Terry Kennedy will be pulling a lot of their strings. The Kenyans, the Canadians, the Japanese – all are capable of winning gold.

In the women’s event, the field is not as level but there are still at least six teams that could win it. The USA and Canada are both powerhouses in the international game and will want to help grow it domestically with a golden lining. Alex Kelter and Ghislaine Landry are points machines for the Eagles and Canucks respectively.

New Zealand’s Portia Woodman, in action against Australia in May, is a prime example of the talent in women’s sevens today.
New Zealand’s Portia Woodman, in action against Australia in May, is a prime example of the talent in women’s sevens today. Photograph: Andrew Cornaga/AAP

From Europe, Russia won’t be easy to beat and I think France, who qualified via the repechage,will win a medal. Great Britain have the capability to reach the podium, too. They have a lovely balance in the squad and if they get on a roll early their confidence could soar.

The Fijiana play the same style as the men’s side and have taken some big scalps recently. Most eyes will be on their male counterparts but don’t be surprised if it is the women’s team that raise the eyebrows. Reigning champions Australia have wobbled since their golden performance and their neighbours New Zealand have dominated since 2016.

I mentioned Radradra as the best player in the world but if the conversation is extended to encompass both the men’s and women’s game, Portia Woodman has to be in the conversation. The Kiwi can do it all and she’s one of many amazingly talented female players that you just have to watch and admire to see how much the women’s game has grown. The quality of those top match-ups will be easily on par with the men’s matches.

I think with the backdrop of lack of match practice and unsure form, we are going to see some upsets. Final plays and magical moments will define this tournament and the victors … well, that might just be the re-emergence of sevens in all its colourful glory.

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