World Rugby officials happy with the Olympic debut of 7s
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) There couldn't have been a better advertisement for rugby's return to the Olympics than Fiji's first gold medal.
The Fijians were faster, they were stronger and they were on a higher level. And they could really sing. Best of all, in the words of World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, the Fijians were everybody's ''second'' favorite team.
That's everybody apart from the 900,000 people in Fiji, where rugby sevens is the national sport and the players are revered.
In the first rugby competition at the Olympics since 1924, and in the condensed seven-a-side format rather than the traditional 15s, the six medals were spread across the world.
Fiji's 43-7 win over Britain in the men's gold-medal match was a lesson in how the game can be played. South Africa soundly beat Japan for bronze but the Japanese team played its part to promote the game with its shocking opening win over powerhouse New Zealand. People in Japan took notice. People in Fiji couldn't avoid it - the country shut down as the national sevens team delivered Fiji's first ever medal.
The women's world series champion Australians won the gold medal in a final against No. 2-ranked New Zealand, and Canada beat Britain for bronze. The host nation did well enough in the women's ranks to qualify a Brazilian team for next year's world series.
''You come to events that are far bigger than anything we normally stage and to be a part of it has been fantastic,'' Beaumont said, adding that it was taking the game to new markets.
It also was a good chance for rugby, he said, ''to show the Olympic family what we can do with our sport.''
Japan's unexpected run in the men's draw could have positive consequences for the hosts of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where rugby is expected to be played in a 45,000-seat stadium - three times the size of the temporary Deodoro Stadium venue used in Brazil.
''We've had the opportunity and we thank the IOC for that. We've got Tokyo in four years, a year after Rugby World Cup in Japan, so I can only see rugby expanding in both forms of the game,'' Beaumont said. ''There's no one in World Rugby conceited enough to think we have a divine right to be here but hopefully we've showcased our sport on the world stage.''
The rugby sevens format is like a snack-sized version of the traditional 15-a-side game. The games are played on a full field, with seven players in a team and with halves of seven minutes instead of 40. So the impetus is on attacking rugby, good fodder for the highlight reels.
And, it makes it achievable for countries which don't have a long rugby tradition or a huge budget to be competitive at the Olympics.
''If you think about the semifinals, there were countries from Asia, Europe, Oceania and Africa,'' Beaumont said. ''That's not bad for a global game, so from that point of view that's been good.
''Hopefully we've earned the right to be a permanent sport and we'll be trying like mad to retain our status.''
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said the attendances picked up after the 15,000-seat stadium was only half full on the first of six days of competition.
''We've sat between 75-85 percent for the rest of the tournament,'' Gosper said. ''That's punching above most of the sports here so far, and we're happy with that.''
Japan will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and it is expected the Olympic tournament in 2020 will be staged in the Ajinomoto Stadium, which is close to the main Olympic venues and holds 45,000 people.
As far as Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is concerned, rugby has earned its place at the Olympics.
''I wanted to thank the Olympic committee for including rugby sevens into the Olympics and we hope the brand of rugby we played today has justified the inclusion,'' he said. ''It props up little tiny nations like us.''