Rugby Union makes a welcome return to the Olympic stage this week in Rio de Janeiro.
Last seen at the 1924 Games in Paris, the IOC has included both men’s and women’s Sevens events this year and at Tokyo 2020.
Sevens is the perfect Olympic sport; powerful, explosive and compressed into two seven-minute halves. Winning requires a thrilling combination of pace and technique.
The United States of America won men’s gold in 1924 but when the full version of the game was played. This time, they and their female counterparts are no more than outside bets for a medal of any sort.
The southern hemisphere nations ought to dominate; reigning world champions, Fiji, are favourites for the gold medal. The South Pacific islanders are one of the most successful Sevens nations and back-to-back winners of the IRB World Series Sevens.
They face stiff opposition from South Africa – World Series runners-up in five of the last six tournaments – and New Zealand, winners of four of the last six World Series. Australia are the weakest of the southern hemisphere nations, yet still expected to be the fourth semi-finalist.
New Zealand may have trailed off in the World Series but they match the Fijians for power. Both nations epitomise the strength and speed Sevens demands with the All Blacks more adept at breaking up play. The Fijians by contrast, prefer an open game, avoiding set plays. Their passing and movement is something to behold when they hit their peak.
Contrast this with South Africa whose success is down to pure pace; Seabelo Senatla is a crucial player for the Blitzboks and one who rivals the speed of the Americans Carlin Isles and Perry Baker. There will inevitably be comparisons to the 100m sprinters during these games which are not without some merit in the case of that trio.
For Australia, any medal would be a bonus. Whilst they are regaining form, their consistency can be questioned although any side which includes Cameron Clark and Lewis Holland can’t be underestimated. The last World Series underlines the point – a solid fourth but not threatening any better.
Winners of each group plus the best third-placed team will fight for the medals with the losing quarter-finalists dropping into the 5th and 9th place play-offs.
Great Britain, whose qualification came as a result of England’s fourth place in the last World Series, and France, are expected to be contesting strongly for the lesser placings. Comprising English, Scottish and Welsh players, the British are another team which likes to utilise pace and any meeting with France will be a striking contrast between strength and speed.
Of the official Test playing nations in the full game, only Argentina compete in Rio. The Pumas are improving but some way off competing in the final medal shakedown. The beauty of Sevens is that they, along with hosts Brazil, Spain and Japan, could spring a surprise along the way.
Fourteen minutes of action; intense, fast and unpredictable – Sevens may prove to be one of the most popular of the ‘new’ Olympic sports.