RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Fijian rugby has so often flattered to deceive on the biggest stages but in Rio the Pacific islanders perfectly harnessed their blend of physicality, pace and flair to deliver their country its first Olympic medal.
After storming through the inaugural sevens tournament laying waste to traditional rivals, most notably New Zealand, Ben Ryan’s team produced an all but flawless 20 minutes of rugby to clinch gold with a 43-7 demolition of Britain.
It was a fairytale ending to six days of rugby at the Deodoro Stadium which made an extremely good case for the retention of the sport in the Olympics beyond the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The crowds, as with so many sports in South America’s first Olympics, were a little disappointing, but there was atmosphere enough to point to the Olympic potential of a game where having fun off the pitch is very much part of the tradition.
Rugby’s previous incarnation at the Olympics until 1924 had been in the 15-aside game but the shorter, less nuanced sevens format proved a perfect showcase for the sport in the era of the attention deficient.
It also ensured a higher quality of women’s competition than would have been the case if the players, many of who had taken up the sport only in the preceding four years, had been forced to wrestle with the more structured 80-minute game.
As it was, the women’s tournament was proof that women can play a sport once considered the antithesis of femininity with no little skill, commitment and physicality.
Australia, whose team contained two of the four outstanding players of the women’s tournament in Charlotte Caslick and Emma Tonegato, beat New Zealand, whose Kayla McAlister and Portia Woodman were the other two, 24-17 in the final.
There were fewer standout individuals in the men’s event but even more disappointment for New Zealand, who were upset by a vibrant Japan side, lost Sonny Bill Williams and two other key players to injury, and bowed out in the quarter-finals.
Canada’s women took home a bronze, while South Africa ended Japan’s stunning run to finish third for the men.
Rugby also provided one of the more heartwarming stories of the Games when Brazilian player Isadora Cerullo accepted a very public marriage proposal from her girlfriend of two years, Marjorie Enya, at the women’s medal ceremony.
Editing by Alison Williams