Rugby’s return to the Olympics after a 92-year absence could not have gone any better in Rio, with wins for Fiji and Australia in the men’s and women’s competitions, creating much excitement.
If any board members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were still sceptical about rugby’s value to the Games, they were quickly won over by the action on show and the buzz around the full stadiums, as World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont attested.
"Whenever I met an IOC member in a hotel restaurant or lift during the first week in Rio, they would quickly look down at my accreditation to see who I was and usually say nothing. But after Fiji won, well, everybody wanted to congratulate me on the amazing tournament."
Here, we take a look back at seven of the most memorable moments from the three days of competition in 2016.
Combining the speed of the sprint track with the agility of gymnastics and the physicality of wrestling or judo, rugby sevens and the Olympics made for the perfect match. It quickly became one of the hottest tickets in town, with an army of new fans attracted to the sport.
Online research conducted before and after the Rio Games by Nielsen Sports in the six core markets of Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States indicated that there were nearly 17 million of them. Oscar-winning Texan actor Matthew McConaughey was one of the new converts, declaring rugby sevens to be one of his new favourite sports after attending the event in person.
Lighting the torch
There was no holding a candle to Australia’s women as they became the first team to win a rugby sevens gold medal at the Olympics, defeating New Zealand in the final. Before the final, the Australian changing room was literally as dark as the black shirts they were about to confront after coach Tim Walsh turned off the lights.
“We just thought the Brazilian electricity had gone out,” Australia back Alicia Lucas revealed on the Between the Lines podcast. “But our coach, Tim Walsh, had obviously turned off the lights and he had our Rio candle burning in the middle of the room. We’d had this candle burning every meeting for over a year, and it was like a symbol of the Olympic flame and the fire and the smell of Rio is what he was trying to create.”
Once the lights had been turned back on, the Australians headed out to the Deodoro Stadium pitch. The reigning HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions got off to a slow start but, aided by Portia Woodman’s sin-binning, they deservedly won 24-17.
Fiji kneel in prayer
Rugby in any form is like a religion in Fiji, and head coach Ben Ryan took on an almost god-like status on the island after steering the men’s team to the gold medal in Rio.
A breathless exhibition of skilful handling and broken-field running, the thumping 43-7 victory over Great Britain in the final match showed off everything that was good about not only their own play but rugby sevens as a whole.
Fiji’s triumphant players kneeled to receive their medals from Princess Anne – their country’s first Olympic medal of any colour – but back home in Suva and beyond, they were dancing on the rooftops and jumping for joy.
Japan shock New Zealand
Part of rugby sevens’ appeal is the capacity for any team to beat another on its day, but few people would have foreseen Japan’s victory over mighty New Zealand on the opening morning of the men’s competition in Rio.
Just as the Brave Blossoms had upset South Africa in Rugby World Cup 2015 the year before, Japan’s sevens team ran their more vaunted opponents off the park with their high-tempo rugby, resulting in a 14-12 win.
Zeroes and then heroes
You don’t get too many 0-0 scorelines in rugby, and when they do occur, they are not normally celebrated. However, the quarter-final stalemate between Team GB and Argentina provided the men’s competition with one of the most thrilling and tense contests in rugby sevens history.
Captain Gaston Revol had a chance to win it for Argentina with a penalty at the end of normal time but missed it, just as his opposite number Tom Mitchell did when he struck the post in sudden-death extra-time. Argentina knocked on the rebound and from the resultant scrum, Dan Bibby went over out wide to spark the Team GB celebrations as Los Pumas Sevens fell to their knees in devastation.
Super Bowl stardust
The presence of three-time Super Bowl winner Nate Ebner in the USA’s roster at Rio attracted much attention, and understandably so. Ebner is just one of seven players in NFL history to participate in the Olympics and also own a pro football championship ring, and the only player to achieve the feat in the same year. He scored two tries in Rio in what was a disappointing campaign for the team overall. Ebner hopes to be in Tokyo in a few months’ time when the US Sevens Eagles will be looking to set the record straight.
Sealed with a kiss
The sight of Olympics volunteer manager Marjorie Enya and Brazilian player Izzy Cerullo locked together in an emotional embrace on the pitch at the end of the women’s competition, obvious to the thousands of eyes on them, was one of the enduring images of the Games. Enya had just proposed to her girlfriend, and the clip went viral. Thankfully, she said yes.