After many years of waiting, the Springbok Sevens’ first Olympic Games campaign is done and dusted. Some may lament the fact that the team fell short in the semi-finals and ultimately failed to win the gold medal.
Many more will appreciate the magnitude of the Blitzboks’ achievement in the third-place playoff against Japan, in the context of Team SA’s overall medal count and in the context of the SA rugby team’s record at Olympic tournaments.
The Blitzboks did their part to boost Team SA’s medal tally. Kyle Brown’s side will go down in history as the first SA rugby side to win an Olympic medal. (The 15-man rugby union game was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1924 and sevens was included this year for the first time.)
SA travelled to Rio de Janeiro with lofty expectations. They finished the 2015-2016 World Rugby Sevens Series second behind Fiji, yet the coaches and players felt confident about their chances of winning gold at the Olympics.
Head coach Neil Powell highlighted the balance between strength and speed in his squad as a plus. Many experts predicted that Seabelo Senatla, a player who had scored a whopping 66 tries in the preceding Sevens Series, would excel on sport’s biggest stage and spearhead SA’s surge to gold. It was a fair prediction, considering Senatla’s impact in the 2014 Commonwealth Games final in Glasgow. The Blitzboks star scored two tries in that decider, and SA claimed the gold medal.
Unfortunately for the Blitzboks and Senatla, their Olympic campaign in Rio did not pan out as they hoped it would. SA were flying high after impressive wins against Spain (24-0) and France (26-0) on day one. On day two, they were brought to earth with a thump.
SA went down 12-5 to Australia in their final Pool B match. While they picked themselves up to beat the Aussies 22-5 in the quarterfinals, the win came at a cost. Senatla aggravated an existing wrist injury in the dying stages of that fixture, and was forced to miss the rest of the tournament.
Great Britain outmuscled SA to win 7-5 in the semifinals. The Blitzboks failed to take their chances, and missed a finisher of Senatla’s quality.
SA were pitted against Japan in the third-place playoff. Japan had impressed in the earlier rounds, beating New Zealand in the process, and defeating France 12-7 in the quarterfinals. Many started to draw parallels between the Blitzboks facing Japan in an Olympic bronze medal match and the famous 2015 World Cup pool fixture in Brighton, when Japan beat the Springboks 34-32. David got the better of Goliath in that fixture, and the rugby world had not forgotten.
The pressure was firmly on the Blitzboks. They had already watched one of the pre-tournament favourites, New Zealand, bow out at the quarterfinal stage. Another loss would lead to SA suffering a similar fate, in that they would not receive a medal.
SA rallied. They completed a resounding 54-14 win against Japan to ensure they obtained some reward for their efforts, and that SA sports fans were given a reason to cheer.
The magical performance by Fiji in the final may also have shown SA’s pre-tournament expectations of a gold medal to be overly ambitious.
The Pacific islanders were the standout side in the 2015-2016 Sevens Series. At times, they played a breathtaking brand of rugby at the Rio Olympics.
In the final, Fiji put on a masterful display to thrash Great Britain 43-7. It was a fantastic advert for sevens rugby, and there can be no doubt that the best side won gold.