Olympics: Pressure on Fiji for back-to-back titles
PREVIEW: Fiji gets the defence of their Olympic Sevens title underway against Games hosts Japan on Monday, while New Zealand threatens to be lying in wait as they seek redemption for missing out on the podium in Rio.
The Fijians notched up a memorable 43-7 victory over Britain in the inaugural Sevens final in Brazil to claim the country’s first-ever Olympic medal.
It was a celebration that brought Fiji to a standstill, with the players treated to a homecoming to remember.
This time around, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that Fiji has played just one tournament in the past 17 months, albeit winning six from six in the Oceania Sevens in Townsville that also featured New Zealand, Australia and a representative Oceania side.
Either way, Fiji’s Welsh coach Gareth Baber said the expectation on his side “is always that you go and front up, and win gold”.
Baber added that the challenge of taking on bigger teams in the bid for a second Olympic success would be no less significant than in Rio.
“I don’t think you can comprehend just how big it would be,” he said.
“Things are tough there at the moment, and the national identity, national pride is intrinsically linked with the ability to get over their big brothers of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, those teams that we always think that we stand behind.
“And, in this format, in Sevens rugby, we’ve shown time and time again that we could do that.”
The tournament in Rio was set alight when Japan beat powerhouses New Zealand 14-12 in their opening game, to the utter delight of the outsiders.
The Japanese bowed out to Fiji in the semifinals and eventually lost to South Africa in the bronze medal play-off, sparking a timely pique of interest in the oval-ball game ahead of hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
New Zealand ‘really confident’
For New Zealand, that opening defeat – in which cross-code star Sonny Bill Williams went off injured – marked the start of a disappointing campaign in what skipper Tim Mikkelson calls the “pinnacle” of his career, the Olympic Games.
The veteran of a record 91 international Sevens tournaments was under no illusion of his side’s intention this time around: “To win gold. That is what we are working towards.
“This team is really confident. We have huge belief in the way we have performed over the last four or five years. This team is as ready as it has ever been to perform.”
Clark Laidlaw, the Scottish coach of the New Zealand side, added that weather forecasts of hot, humid conditions with potential rain on the opening two days of the three-day tournament at Tokyo Stadium could play into Fijian hands.
“The closest conditions to these we experience is probably Suva, so Fiji will be reasonably ready,” said Laidlaw, cousin of ex-Scotland captain Greig, who now plays in Tokyo with the NTT Shining Arcs.
“The heat could play a part with defences getting on top. With no tournaments for a year, teams might struggle to get rhythm into their attacking game.”
Apart from Fiji, New Zealand and hosts Japan, nine other teams will compete: the United States and South Africa as qualifiers from the top four teams from the 2019 Sevens World Series – along with Argentina, Australia, Canada, Britain, Kenya, South Korea and Ireland.
The format entails three pools of four drawn up by seeding. A round-robin format follows, with the two top teams from each pool plus the two best-placed third-placed teams advancing to the Cup quarterfinals, with lower-placed teams battling it out in the Plate and Bowl competitions.
Played on a full-size pitch, Sevens is not for the faint-hearted, the slightest defensive error likely to be fully exploited by players whose technical skills and speed are often much better than the average 15s international.
Each match consists of two seven-minute halves with the exception of the final when each half is extended by three minutes. Should the Final finish with the sides equal, the game goes to sudden-death extra-time, the first team to score wins.
Pool A: New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, South Korea
Pool B: Fiji, Britain, Canada, Japan
Pool C: South Africa, United States, Kenya, Ireland