Rugby union returned to the Olympic Games this week after an absence of 92 years, when the women’s seven-a-side tournament was staged in Rio de Janiero. Australia’s Pearls won the gold medal, beating New Zealand 24-17 in today’s final. Canada won the bronze and the United States finished fifth.
Tomorrow the men’s tournament kicks off. The last time rugby was in the Olympics, in Paris in 1924, the United States retained the title by comfortably beating France in the final. The US had also beaten France to win the gold medal at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Australia won in London in 1908 and France in Paris in 1900.
The United States which won in Paris in 1924
It could be said that while rugby’s road to Olympic redemption has ended in Rio, its start was in an equally non-rugby setting: Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Rugby sevens became a Commonwealth Games event in 1998, and the tournament in KL, won by New Zealand on September 14 that year, was such an enormous success it undoubtedly laid the first stones on the yellow brick road to Rio.
I covered that 1998 event, and in more than 40 years of writing about international sport, have seldom experienced such a wonderful sporting occasion. New Zealand beat Fiji 21-12 in the final, with Australia taking the bronze. The New Zealand team included the legendary Jonah Lomu, as well as Amasio Valence, Bruce Reihana, Caleb Ralph, Christian Cullen, Dallas Seymour, Eric Rush, Joeli Vidiri, Rico Gear and Roger Randle. Fiji was led by the irrepressible Waisale Serevi. Australia had the likes of David Campese, Ipolito Fenukitau and Jim Williams.
The late, great Jonah Lomu, centre, performs the haka to celebrate gold.
New Zealand went to win the next three Commonwealth Games sevens gold medals, in Manchester in 2002 (again beating Fiji in the final), in Melbourne in 2006 (beating England) and in Delhi in 2010 (beating Australia). In Glasgow in 2014, South Africa ended New Zealand’s run of success by beating the Kiwis in the final.
The Cantabrians win the first Hong Kong sevens, 1976.
The rise of rugby sevens to such a high level of international competition began in yet another unlikely setting: Happy Valley in Hong Kong, where an annual tournament was started in 1976. It came to be called “the Olympic Games of rugby”. Yet it blossomed in the face of stiff initial opposition from the International Rugby Board and the Rugby Football Union in England to commercial sponsorship in rugby. With the backing of Rothmans and Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong sevens drew many national teams from the region, but in the first instance Australia and New Zealand sent the Wallaroos and the Cantabrians. The latter, a New Zealand invitational team, beat the Wallaroos 24-8 in the first final.
It’s fair to say the Hong Kong sevens were ahead of their time and an influential force in the modernisation of rugby union, 11 years ahead of the first 15-a-side World Cup and 19 years ahead of professional rugby. Famed Scottish commentator Bill McLaren said, "While tournaments like the Hong Kong sevens continue to be played, rugby administrators can be confident that the game will continue to thrive in over 100 countries worldwide."
International sevens rugby got off to what might have seemed an inauspicious start, at Murrayfield in Edinburgh on April 7, 1973. At the end of its centenary celebrations that season, the Scottish Rugby Union organised a tournament in which IRB member nations, France and a President’s team including otherwise ostracised South Africans took part. Scotland, the birthplace of sevens, thought such an event was appropriate for its 100th birthday bash. But it became very clear that Australia and New Zealand, in particular, had very little idea what sevens was all about, and selected teams accordingly. Australia sent big forwards like Barry Stumbles, Garrick Fay and David Duckworth, physically strong but unsuited to the demands of the fast-moving sevens game. New Zealand at least took Grant Batty, George Skudder, Duncan Hales, Ian Stevens and Lyn Colling, but also had big forwards in Alan Sutherland, Alex Wyllie and Alistair Shown.
England emerged from one of the two pools to beat Ireland, which had edged out New Zealand in Pool A, by 22-18 in the final. England had a well balanced team, with Keith Fielding, David Duckham, the fabulous Peter Rossborough, Steve Smith, Andy Ripley and Peter Preece (Fran Cotton, Jon Gray and Roger Uttley were also there). Ireland had sprint champion Vinny Becker, Wallace McMaster, the crafty Mike Gibson, Donal Canniffe, Fergus Slattery, lanky duo Kevin Mays (not a sprinter) and Terry Moore and Seamus Dennison. The President’s team included Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick, Jan Ellis and Piet Greyling.
Rogge with Ghent in 1970.
The play was exciting enough, but there was nothing in it to suggest that 36 years later, in Copenhagen in October 2009, the International Olympic Committee would agree to recall rugby to the Olympics. Perhaps the fact that the IOC’s then president, Count Jacques Jean Marie Rogge, had played rugby for Belgium might have helped the cause. Sevens rugby debuted as an Olympic sport at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing in China in August 2014, when Australia won the girl’s gold medal.