Although the 15-player version of the sport appeared at the Olympic Games between 1900 and 1924, Rio 2016 marks the debut of rugby sevens, a faster, shorter adaption.
After 16 appearances in the Olympics, the tiny nation of Fiji won its first medal. Gold in the Mens Rugby 7s.
Facing Great Britain in the final of the inaugural tournament, the Fijians ran rampant with five tries in the first half before taking their collective foot of the gas and adding only two more after the break to seal a 43-7 victory.
Skipper Osea Kolinisau, Jerry Tuwai, Jasa Veremalua, Leone Nakarawa, Vatemo Ravouvou, Josua Tuisova and Viliame Mata all scored tries as Fiji collected its first Olympic title at its 14th Games. The fact that all seven tries were scored by different players illustrated the open, attacking game that the Fijians played throughout the final.
For Fiji, a small Oceanic nation that is comprised of over 300 islands in the South Pacific and boasts a population of just 800,000, it was nothing less than what was expected. The team entered the Olympics as the heavy favorites, led byLeone Nakarawa, who is listed at 6-6 and 240 pounds, and Semi Kunatani, who is 6-3, 240.
“The team, they are our heroes,” said Vaseva Varea, a Fiji native who lives in Australia and traveled to Brazil for the Games. “They are our warriors. They are everything to us.”
One of several players that performed brilliantly on the night, Kolinisau revealed what his final words to the team had been before going out for the match, saying: “I told the boys we needed to have fire in our heart but ice in our minds and stay cool-headed. Then after the match, I said to the boys on the podium, ‘Is this really happening? Did we finish our game and win a gold medal?’”
The shellshocked British failed to even get out of their own half in the opening period and when Dan Norton finally touched down for their only score it was only ever going to be a consolation.
“They just attacked everything, they went for everything and it all paid off,” said Britain’s James Rodwell. “They’re one of the best there is. They’ve won the world series for the last two years and now they’ve added an Olympic gold medal so credit to them, they had an absolute blinder.”
Earlier in the day Japan’s remarkable run at the tournament, which included victories over New Zealand and France, came to an end with defeat to the Fijians in the semi-finals. Their hopes of having a bronze medal to show for their giant-killing exploits were crushed by South Africa, who claimed the final podium place when they ran out 54-14 winners in a similarly one-sided third-place decider.
Its upset against New Zealand in group play was considered by many to be the match of the tournament.
The world series champions went behind early in the match, however four unanswered tries from Emma Tonegato, Evania Pelite, Ellia Green and Charlotte Caslick then gave them a lead that New Zealand were unable to overhaul.
There were jubilant scenes at the final whistle, as the Australians huddled in tearful hugs under the posts. "It brings tears to my eyes," explained Green. "We've just made Australian history, rugby history. It means everything."
New Zealand, who scored two tries through the outstanding Kayla McAlister and one at the death from Portia Woodman, performed their traditional haka at the end of the match, but they could not hide their devastation at missing out on gold.
"We’re pretty gutted,” said New Zealand captain Sara Goss. “We came out here to win a gold medal and we are bringing back a silver. But silver's still good in New Zealand's eyes and we hope we have done them proud.”
New Zealand’s hopes suffered a major setback when Woodman, the tournament’s top try scorer with 10, was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on.
After a tight and physical start to the final, McAlister forced her way over in the corner for her sixth try of the tournament to give New Zealand an early lead before Tonegato hit back with her seventh.
Australia had started to find holes in the New Zealand defence and when Woodman was sent off for two minutes, first Pelite then Green benefited from the extra space to give the women in green and gold a 17-5 lead just after half-time.
Charlotte Caslick then nipped over for another converted try to further extend Australia's lead and although McAlister grabbed her second try, two converted scores for New Zealand in little more than a minute was always going to be a big ask.
Woodman did finally weave her way over to score under the posts but the hooter had sounded and Australia were already well into their celebrations when Tyla Nathan-Wong took the conversion.
Australia coach Tim Walsh said he thought the inaugural women's tournament had shown the sport deserved its place at the Games.
"We certainly up held the values of the Olympic Movement, and rugby,” said Walsh. “I think we have created a very sustainable future for rugby sevens at the Olympic Games.”
Charity Williams, helping Canada win thier first Olympic Rugby Sevens medal. The 19-year-old was part of the Canadian women’s team that beat Great Britain 33-10 in the bronze medal match
For Williams, the momentous occasion comes just two years after she won silver at the YOG Nanjing 2014 – when rugby sevens made its historic debut on an Olympic programme. And the significance of the occasion was not lost on her.
“There are no words to describe how I feel,” she said after the match. “I’m so happy and so proud of our team and what we’ve achieved here; it’s amazing. This is something that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. A few of us are quite young and we’ll have another Olympic Games ahead of us as well.”
One of those other young players is 20-year-old Hannah Darling, who captained the Canadian team to silver in Nanjing before joining Williams in the squad for Rio 2016.
“Being in the Youth Olympic Games was amazing, and being here again with Hannah is just breath-taking,” said Williams. “She was the first person I hugged [at the end of the match]. I’m so glad we could share this together.”