Women ready for kick off when rugby returns to the Olympics
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) It'll be a first for women, and the first time in 92 years for the sport when the Olympic rugby sevens tournament kicks off with a match between France and Spain on Saturday.
Rugby sevens was added to the program for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, sparking accelerated growth in the abbreviated version of the sport. Despite the burgeoning global participation, the first Olympic rugby gold medal since the men played the last of the 15-a-side tournaments in 1924 is likely to go to one of the sport's traditional powers, with New Zealand and world series winner Australia favored to reach the final.
The 12 teams each play three group matches, with the top eight advancing to the quarterfinals on Sunday afternoon. The final is set for Monday, and the men's tournament runs for the following three days.
CHERRY READY?: The Australians are likely to give former world player of the year Emilee Cherry until the last minute to prove her fitness after she strained a hamstring in a practice session early in the week.
Australia opens with matches against Colombia and Fiji on Saturday, and meets the United States on Sunday.
Cherry participated in some light training on Friday and head coach Tim Walsh said there were positive signs.
''She's a lot better today so we're seeing how she progresses whether we play her tomorrow or not,'' Walsh said. ''She's taken a lot of steps forward last night and had some pretty intensive physio so her strength is coming back.''
TIMING THE RUN: The long-time top-ranked New Zealand women's team finished a distant second to Australia in the world series this season. But the New Zealanders said the Olympics is the biggest prize of the year and their preparations were geared toward it.
Now that the time has arrived, the New Zealanders aren't backing away from that.
New Zealand coach Sean Horan said having rugby sevens on the Olympic program had a dramatic impact on the development of the global game, particularly for women.
''We've created something brand new. And the reason why we're all sitting up here and we're professional athletes and staff and is that the game is an Olympic sport now,'' Horan said, explaining the emphasis on Rio rather than the world series. ''The learnings we've got from the 2015-16 (world) series would be, we came second to a pretty good Australian team.
''We took some great (lessons) ... and grown.''
New Zealand plays Kenya in its first match.
UNSTOPPABLE: Jillion Potter of the United States missed the 2010 World Cup because of a serious neck injury, and had to sit out the 2014-15 women's sevens world series after being diagnosed with cancer and needing eight months of treatment. On Saturday, she'll be an Olympian.
Potter beat the Stage III synovial sarcoma in time to return to Olympic training and is one of the more inspirational stories of the games.
The U.S. women play Fiji and Colombia on Saturday, and are expecting to be vying for one of the top two spots in the group when they play Australia on Sunday.
AIMING HIGH: The Canadian women won the last stop in the world series, beating top-ranked Australia in the final, and placing third overall. That makes them a good shot at a medal.
Veteran Kelly Russell kept her reply brief when asked what medal the Canadians should be targeting: ''Gold.''
First things first. The Canadians have a battle to top Pool C, which also contains Britain, host Brazil and Japan.
UNITED BRITAIN: Britain qualified for the women's Olympic sevens tournament based on England's performances on the world stage, and the team was always likely to be dominated by England players. Welsh winger Jasmine Joyce earned selection, ensuring it wasn't a full English dozen.
Emily Scarratt, who helped England win the 2014 World Cup in the 15-a-side format, said her squad is in Rio ''with ambitions.''
''We know if we play the way that we can and are capable of, we can really come away with something,'' Scarratt told Britain's Press Association. ''We've been through high pressure situations and through the long campaigns in terms of still peaking at the end.''