If this weekend’s repechage tournaments are half as dramatic as the one five years ago, then fans inside Stade Louis II in Monaco and those watching worldwide via World Rugby’s various digital platforms will be in for a real treat.
Unlike 2016, the men’s and women’s competitions will be played on the same weekend at the same venue, with 12 women’s and 10 men’s teams all vying to emulate Spain and achieve Olympic qualification via the repechage. There are two Olympic places available to the women’s teams and one in the men’s.
Back in 2016, Spain’s men left it until the very last play to secure qualification at the expense of Samoa, before Las Leonas joined them a week later after beating Russia in an equally compelling women’s final.
The tearful post-match interview of winning men’s captain turned national team coach, Pablo Feijoo is the stuff of rugby folklore, and no doubt emotions will be running high on what promises to be a ‘Super Sunday’ on the French Riviera.
Rupert Cox was the man asking the questions that day and will be back in Monaco as one of the three lead commentators.
“There isn’t a final in the women’s competition, there are two qualifying finals which are effectively semis in a normal event,” explained Cox. “So the last three games on Sunday are the two women’s qualifying finals and the men’s qualifying final, so for all of those games, the winner will go through to the Olympics. It should be an amazing finish, a better finish than 2016, I think, if anything. It’s going to be amazing in terms of handing out the golden tickets.”
While conceding that France and Ireland and France and Russia deserve the favourites’ tag in the men’s and women’s competition, respectively, Cox has seen first hand how anything can happen when the ultimate prize of a place in the Olympics is at stake.
“Canada were one of the favourites coming in but they were beaten in pool play by Germany and then lost in the quarter-finals to Russia,” he recalled.
“Samoa (the top seeds) lost to Ireland in pool play and were almost beaten by Germany in the semi-finals, so it could have easily been a Spain v Germany final.
“Samoa threw it away in the final, they should have won it. It was pretty extraordinary how Spain came back.”
Capping a weekend of outstanding performances where the form book was comprehensively torn-up, Ignacio Martin was Spain’s hero, scoring a last-gasp try to secure an historic 22-19 victory.
At the UCD Bowl in Dublin, there was double cause for celebration in Spanish rugby as Las Leonas Sevens claimed the last ticket to Rio with a 19-12 victory over Russia in a match-up between the tournament’s top two seeds.
Spain reached the final without conceding a single point, while Russia's line was breached only twice – both times by hosts Ireland in the semi-final – and they duly produced a final befitting the Olympic place at stake.
A brace of tries from Patricia Garcia helped Spain to a 14-7 half-time lead before Barbara Pla put them further in front with her team’s third try. Daria Bobkova’s second of the match reduced the deficit and set up a tense finish, but determined defending from Spain thereafter kept the Russians at bay.
Spain have not qualified for the repechage this time around in either competition, coming up short in the European regional qualifier.
The women’s competition will feature Argentina, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Samoa and Tunisia. The men’s tournament will involve Chile, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, Jamaica, Mexico, Samoa, Tonga, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
“I think it will be really hard for the non-European sides to do anything extraordinary because of the hoops they have had to jump through to get here,” said Cox.
“I think it is extraordinary World Rugby have put all this together, to get all these teams here and a) everyone is COVID-free, touch wood and b) teams from every continent in the world are there, which is incredible.”