The stakes could not be higher in Dublin this weekend with 16 women’s teams competing for the final place at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games through the global repechage.
The 192 players will play 44 matches before the two teams left standing go head-to-head for 20 lung-busting minutes for the right to join hosts Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, USA, Colombia, France, Fiji, Japan and Kenya at Rio 2016.
Since October 2009, when the International Olympic Committee voted overwhelmingly to add rugby sevens to programme for Rio 2016, thousands of female players have had their eye on this historic opportunity.
The hosts Brazil took up one slot, while 10 others were allocated via the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and regional qualifiers. The nations that missed out via those regional routes have one last chance in the Dublin Sevens, where the competition is sure to be fierce.
Russia, Spain and hosts Ireland are the top three seeds and will start as favourites having played as core teams on the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series in 2015-16, but fourth seeds Hong Kong and China, coached by sevens legend Ben Gollings, should not be discounted.
A Spanish double?
After all, as the men’s repechage in Monaco last weekend showed, anything can happen in sevens and usually does! Samoa, the HSBC Paris Sevens winners, were top seeds and favourites in Monaco, but Spain snatched victory with a final-play try to qualify for Rio 2016.
Tears of joy were cried and Spain’s women now have the an extra motivation to secure their place at Rio 2016, not wanting to have to sit back and see their male counterparts play their part in sevens’ debut on the Olympic stage.
Captain Elisabet Martinez, though, is not getting carried away and knows her side will need to dig deep at UCD Bowl on Saturday and Sunday if they are to ensure a double celebration for Spanish rugby.
“The men qualifying for the Games is a huge boost for us and we must use this to have more will to get our place,” explained Martinez.
“It is a huge opportunity for us which we must take and what better achievement for Spanish rugby than to have both teams – men and women – in Rio de Janeiro?”
Spain’s squad, who between them have played more than 150 series tournaments, features the majority of players who helped them finish the 2015-16 series strongly, reaching the Cup quarter-finals in both Langford and Clermont-Ferrand.
An amazing dream
“The experience of playing in the series has been very helpful, especially the last two tournaments where we had good finishes and we have progressed, getting better with each tournament,” added Martinez, whose side will face Mexico, Venezuela and Tunisia in Pool B.
“Every game is important and in the world series the standard is very hard and thanks to that we have achieved the standard we need to be here and fulfil our dream.
“We want to win, absolutely, but we know there are a lot of teams here that are good.
“For sure, it is an amazing dream that will come true if we qualify for the Olympic Games and we are dreaming of this.”
Russia are the top seeds after finishing seventh in the series, two places above Spain, with the highlight of the season unquestionably being their final appearance in the opening round in Dubai last December.
They failed to reach those heights in the rest of the season, largely because coach Pavel Baronovsky rotated his players to develop their strength in depth.
World series experience
Russia will be without their inspirational captain Nadezda Kudinova, a nominee for World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year in 2015, but they still have plenty of experience in the likes of captain Marina Petrova, Baizat Khamidova and Ekaterina Kazakova.
Elena Zdrokova will be a player to watch as her side take on Samoa, Madagascar and Zimbabwe – the latter to have never played outside Africa. The teenager scored 14 tries on the series this season after making her debut in Sao Paulo in February.
Hosts Ireland, who secured their status as a series core team by reaching the qualifier at UCD Bowl last August, will hope that home advantage will give them a boost after a trying season.
They failed to reach the Cup quarter-finals across the five events, but field a strong team that includes 15s captain Niamh Briggs only a couple of weeks after she made her Ireland sevens debut in the Rugby Europe Women’s Grand Prix Sevens Series in Kazan.
“We are going to give it everything we have to get to Rio,” insisted captain Lucy Mulhall, whose side will face China, Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago in Pool C.
In it to win it
“On our day we can beat any team but it’s going to take hard work this weekend. A few teams have been playing really well in the world series but there are others who we know very little about.”
Hong Kong may not have played on the series, but with four-time Women’s Rugby World Cup winner and Black Ferns legend Anna Richards at the helm, they have been improving year on year and should not be underestimated in Dublin.
They welcome back captain Christy Cheng and Cindy Yeun after lengthy injuries and with Aggie Poon a dangerous player in attack they will expect to come through a pool featuring Argentina, Asian rivals Kazakhstan and the Cook Islands.
“There are some really good sides, including core world series teams, so we have to be the underdogs going in, but you have to be in it to win it and we’re fortunate enough to be there,” insisted Richards.
“It’s just another really good opportunity for us to go and perform.”
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