One hundred and forty-four young men and women, representing 11 countries from World Rugby’s six regional associations, are in Buenos Aires for the third Youth Olympic Games where the rugby sevens competition kicks off on Saturday at the Club Atletico San Isidro sede la Boya.
Six men’s and six women’s teams will compete for gold, silver and bronze as sevens features for the second time after its debut at Nanjing 2014, ahead of the sport's highly successful introduction to the Olympic Games at Rio 2016.
France will be defending the gold medal they won in China and are the only nation to have teams in both the men's and women's competitions. Argentina will be hoping to go one better on home soil than the silver medal they managed in 2014, with Japan, Samoa, South Africa and USA completing the men's line-up.
In the women's competition, Australia will not be in Buenos Aires to defend their title with New Zealand having earned the right to represent Oceania this time. They will face 2014 silver medallists Canada, Colombia, France, Kazakhstan and Tunisia in a round-robin format before the medal or rankings matches take place in the final session on Monday.
The six sessions of rugby sevens action will be live streamed on the World Rugby website and social media platforms.
While every team have their own goals for the tournament, the Youth Olympic Games is an important player development pathway with many of the players having gone on to play test rugby for their countries or established themselves as regulars on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. Among them are Argentina's Bautista Delguy who has caught the eye in the recent Rugby Championship, Australia's 2018 series winner Dominique du Toit and China's Yan Meiling who led her national side to victory in the world series qualifier to secure a core team place in 2019.
Others went from Nanjing 2014 to Rio 2016, including France's Sacha Valleau, Spain's Amaia Erbina, USA's Richelle Stephens and Canadian pair Hannah Darling and Charity Williams who added an Olympic bronze medal to their Youth Olympic Games silver.
As much as medals are part of teams and players dreams, the Olympic ethos and the chance to connect with fellow Youth Olympians from around the world is also a highlight of Buenos Aires 2018.
USA captain Alex Cleary was given the honour of carrying his nation’s flag at the opening ceremony and is looking forward to getting in to competition mode.
“Being on the big stage brings pressure but we couldn’t be happier. For USA Rugby to be here is big and we are ready to play against the best in the world and win a medal. Playing in Buenos Aires is the end of our Youth Olympic adventure but the start of future Olympians for the USA,” said Cleary.
Five of the six countries in the men's competition are core teams on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, providing players with a clear pathway and the home team have been busy identifying talent for the last three years.
Former Pumas 15s and sevens player Lucas Borges has three players involved in this year's World Rugby U20 Championship in his squad.
“We planned our preparation and had a lot of assistance from the senior squad, giving us competition and a high standard,” he says of his strong squad. “Not being close to the start of the Games has allowed us to find our place in the Village, go through the curiosity period, understanding how big the Games are and being able to focus. The nerves are certainly there for the boys, who have already been looking at other teams, gaging their sizes.
“We don’t know much about the opposition. We played against South Africa last year and have seen France in the European Sevens. Our big day is the second when we play against these two sides, but I wouldn’t underestimate Samoa, Japan or USA.”
Canada's young women, meanwhile, don't have to look very far for inspiration as Sandro Fiorino's assistant coach in Buenos Aires is Kelly Russell, a Rio 2016 bronze medallist and former Canadian 15s captain who led her side to the final of Women's Rugby World Cup 2014.
“Kelly is mentoring them and the girls are looking up to her as a former Olympian,” explained Fiorino. “We want to perform in the spirit of rugby, compete and go home with a medal. They certainly have something to aspire to.
“Our big goal is to connect as a team and every time we are on the field compete, put our best foot forward and as a development team build confidence.
“The goal set by the girls is a podium and of course we want to play for gold, but anything can happen in 14 minutes. Our focus is to be in one of the two medal games, perform in the spirit of rugby, compete and go home with a medal.”
Tunisia's women finished sixth in Nanjing under coach Hedi Mohamed Ali and are hoping for more in Buenos Aires.
“We have been working non-stop as a team for five months and look forward to the competition. We know that New Zealand, France and Canada will be strong teams and we don’t know much about the others.”
New Zealand are certainly a strong contender to succeed Australia as champions and in captain Risaleaana Pouri-Lane have a player who trains with the senior side as a Black Ferns Sevens contracted player. She is yet to feature on the world series, but sat on the bench as an unused replacement in the final of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games after being called up as a late injury replacement.
“Being in the Youth Olympic Games is a surreal experience in a crazy atmosphere; very cool in a very big city,” says Pouri-Lane, who will have the support of her parents and two younger brothers at La Boya.
“We just want to control what we can control and take one game at a time and enjoy ourselves and have fun.”
Legacy is huge with New Zealand teams and that definitely plays a part with this team. “It is huge and we want to wear the jersey with pride and represent those back home. For that we’ll focus on what we are capable of doing.”
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