The time is upon us! We've dreamed for years to see rugby at an Olympic Games, followed the qualification process & the race for those precious twelve jerseys. And now, we're here! Rio 2016. Pretty amazing stuff. That said, let's get down to business!
There are twelve teams in the competition. Eight will make the quarterfinals. Top two from each group are automatic, then the two best third place sides get a shot too!
POOL A: Australia, United States of America, Colombia, Fiji
Australia have been widely seen as the favorites going into Rio but that hasn't seemed to bother them a bit. They embrace the expectations & have the talent to do so! They won the HSBC Women's Sevens World Series this past season and three tournament titles of five as well. Three of the top six try scorers were Aussies (Emilee Cherry 22, 2nd. Ellia Green 17, 4th. Emma Tonegato 16, T5th) and their strength of depth as a program stunned even the most seasoned observers. Green looks to be the fastest player in the tournament & Australia will be looking to shrink the field & find her space on the outside.
The Fijian ladies are game to throw down with any team, any time. Having been around Ben Ryan's program and being coached by the excellent Chris Cracknell, the Fijian women have probably grown faster than any program in the world. I would say they are daring but generally, they make safe plays that only look risky because of their flair. They are smart in the offload & will display as much patience as it takes to break your defense. In terms of upset danger, they may be the scariest side in the tourney.
The US got a new coach a few months back in Richie Walker & boy, was he the right choice. The US Women's 7's program had experienced a string of tough results started with a stinging rout at the hands of Canada in the Pan Am Games. His leadership has rebalanced a talented side & given them hope they can earn gold. Speaking of talent, the US has it in spades. Jessica Javelet & Victoria Folyan are game breakers, Lauren Doyle is an excellent all-around player & Jillion Potter's determination and ferocity are huge assets. Looking at the schedule, the US had better take care of business early because their final pool match (also THE final pool game) is with Australia.
Colombia earned their way to the Games by beating favorites Argentina in the South American qualifying. Nathalie Marchino headlines the roster. You know her as a member of the USA side but as she was born in Colombia, she'll lead their side into Rio. In their one tour appearance this past season, Colombia finished 12th/12 in Atlanta.
POOL B: France, New Zealand, Spain, Kenya
France will be bringing a balanced side to Rio. They tackle well, are versatile & work well together as a team on the field. However, they can be accused of missing that element of gamebreaking speed. Lots of quickness in the form of Cam Grassineau for instance but raw high end speed is a shortage. New Zealand has that speed in spades with the likes of tour leading try scorer Portia Woodman. She may be the world's number one player. If not, she's on the short list of candidates. New Zealand is an intriguing gold medal pick. They have a lot of talent up & down the roster and boatloads of experience in tight, tough game situations. That can only do them good in Rio. Also, Tyla Nathan Wong's kicking, both on conversions & accurate kickoffs, will be a giant asset when she's on the field.
Spain's women got the job done at the Global Olympic Repechage Tournament but don't think of them as the 12th best side in the field. They're far from it. While Spain was 9th on the table in tour points last season, they did improve at the end of the year. In particular, the Spanish gave the USA fits.
When last we left the Lionesses of Kenya, they were having some defensive issues in Clermont. On the whole for that weekend, Kenya surrendered 122 points and scored 29. They did beat Japan though in their final match, 12-5. Beating a regular tour side had to provide a massive lift for a growing program.
POOL C: Japan, Canada, Great Britain, Brazil
In the last match played on the Women's Sevens Series before the Olympics, Canada beat Australia to win the Clermont 7's, 29-19. The score was 26-7 at HT & that first half was a four try thrashing that saw the Canadians dominate possession & play downhill. And all that despite the absence of star Jen Kish, who was injured earlier in the weekend. That lineup did have dual threats Magali Harvey & Ghislaine Landry in it and both scored tries. However, only Landry is on the roster for Rio and that fact got a lot of fan attention in the leadup to the Games. With 19 tries on tour last season & having led the tour in points scored, Landry is as big a threat as it gets.
Speaking of roster changes, playmaker Ashley Steacy is ready to go again. She'll be a key piece for Canada in terms of managing the game but she's a strong scoring threat as well. And speaking of threats, Captain Jen Kish is always present in that discussion. Her versatility, speed, aerial dominance at kickoff time and expertise in the ruck area make her a unique player. If she has her "A" game in Rio, Canada can win gold.
Team GB is loaded with English talent that has a strong history on tour as the likes of Emily Scarratt, Danielle Waterman, Amy Wilson-Hardy, Heather Fisher, Katy McLean fill out a roster that can clearly contend for gold. Joanne Watmore's game breaking ability may be the key that earns gold for Team GB though. Her size/strength/speed combination is a rare asset for the Brits.
Looking at the recent England v Canada results, Canada won the last two in Clermont (31-10) & Langford (5-0) but England won in Atlanta, 26-14 in a third place game. Those two sides will play the final pool game in Pool C.
Beyond the two brightest stars in Pool C are Japan & Brazil. Either has a legit shot to make the quarterfinals. The last time the two sides met was in February '16 in Sao Paulo & Brazil won comfortably, 27-5. The sides finished tied for 10th on the World Series points table with 12 last season. Japan got past a tough Kazakhstan side to qualify for Rio and has the great experience from the Asia Rugby 7's series. Brazil have been the queens of South American 7's for years and years. Perhaps the best barometer of the impact of these games will be Brazil's program down the road. If the women's sevens series were to expand to 16 teams, Brazil should surely be one of the anchor sides.
QUARTERFINALS & BEYOND
In my eyes, Australia have been the clearly dominant team all season long. To beat them, they'll have to be starved of possession by a team that can create quick scores...much like Canada did in the Clermont 7's Final. I think the three teams that could do that are Canada, Team GB & New Zealand. Those are your main gold medal contenders.
As tempting as it is to pick New Zealand or Canada to win, I can't ignore the depth of Australia. They've been consistently strong for a reason. The best player group around wears gold. They work together well, they have seemingly dozens of linebreakers & their defense is very tough to crack. I hate to take the obvious favorite to win, but I just did.
Australia for gold.
- by Dan Mason @Rugby_Global on Twitter.