Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips says that rugby’s inclusion at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics is “more relevant now than ever” as rugby’s sevens stars look to light up a Games impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was in 2009 when Phillips, the then World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, was called upon to help integrate rugby’s short format into Rio 2016 for the very first time, while it was also hoped that he would lead Team GB’s men’s side at the event.
His dream of becoming an Olympian wasn’t realised, however, after a calf injury sustained during Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 saw Phillips’ playing career come to a premature end at the age of 30.
With a renewed purpose leading the Welsh women’s sevens outfit, while also running his own business, he says it is “essential” for the growth of the sport that men’s and women’s rugby continues to be a part of the Olympics programme.
“It’s the pinnacle in any athlete’s career,” Phillips says. “The opportunity to be an Olympian and to be a part of the largest sporting spectacle in the world and play at the Olympic Games only takes the sport to another level.
ON THIS DAY 📅— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) May 24, 2021
Back in 2009 it was England who beat New Zealand in a thrilling final at @Twickenhamstad 🙌🏆
“Given the context of what’s going on in the world and where rugby is at the moment as a spectacle, I think [rugby’s integration into the Olympics in 2016] is even more relevant now than ever. Unions and clubs are all bleeding and hurting around the world and the game has suffered enormously, particularly at youth level and grassroots.
“Our vision and my aim was to play at Rio 2016 and to retire after the Games. Although I would of course have loved to have been a part of it in 2016 and I never made it past the first hurdle, I am pleased to have helped ensure the sport became a part of the Games.”
After reflecting on the “packed houses and party atmosphere” surrounding Rio 2016, which saw Fiji and Australia win the Olympics’ men’s and women’s respective rugby sevens competitions, Phillips says that this year’s event (26-31 July, 2021) will undoubtedly offer “very different” scenes while it is still undecided whether domestic fans will attend matches at Tokyo Stadium.
Nevertheless, having journeyed to Japan to watch Rugby World Cup 2019, Phillips fully expects the Japanese people to embrace sevens with the same enthusiasm and believes it can only continue to develop Japan’s national and domestic rugby programmes for years to come.
“The Olympics is going to look very different to how it traditionally looks,” Phillips continues, “but, the fact that you’ve got the Games in Tokyo, it’s only going to elevate the game. It reinforces just how important it is to be a part of the Olympics and that rugby needs the Olympics just as much as the Olympics needs rugby.
“I think the rugby world got to experience just how beautiful a country Japan is in 2019 and how amazingly efficient and picturesque the country is. The people made it a special World Cup above and beyond what was played out on the field. The Olympics was going to be the cherry on the cake for Japan and embracing everything that’s great about sport.
“Unfortunately, COVID has interrupted that vision, so what the Games looks like and what it feels like is going to be very different. Now it’s about delivering a safe Games. In one breath, that’s a shame but, in another, it is also an incredible opportunity to celebrate the fact that they’ve managed to make it happen.”
Without their usual home support, Phillips says that the players will have to embrace the opportunity whatever the circumstances. He hopes the event will once again provide a stepping-stone for some of the world’s emerging rugby nations, with this month’s Olympic Repechage tournament (19-20 June, 2021) presenting an opportunity for two further women’s teams and one men’s to qualify for the Games.
“The whole point of the Repechage is it gives you one final chance to an Olympic nation,” Phillips says. “I think the reality is that you are still going to see one of those teams from the HSBC World Sevens Series [qualify] but it’s still an amazing opportunity to go and to be a part of an Olympic Games and to play a game that can then go on to grow and flourish in your own country.
“For the players, fans are the differentiator for lots of athletes,” he continues, “in terms of whether they relish that opportunity to play in front of thousands of people or they crumble under the pressure.
“I don’t know what that’s going to look like at the Olympics and whether they’re going to have the opportunity to play in front of fans. However, it’s what makes it special and can give you that extra impetus to get you over the line. There’s no bigger collective audience than, or any that compares, to the audience you get for an Olympic Games.”