Fiji set for gold defense; New Zealand women aim for upgrade


HIGHLIGHTS FROM RIO: The first Olympic gold medal ever awarded in rugby sevens went to the Australian women’s team. The Aussies held off archrival New Zealand in the final, and Canada beat the British team for the bronze medal. The Fijian men were hot favorites to win their country’s first Olympic medal of any kind and they didn’t disappoint their faithful fans. The Pacific island nation got a day off to celebrate after Fiji thumped Britain 43-7 in the final. The Fijians scored five first-half tries in a match that highlighted the fast and flashy way they play the game that has become their national sport. South Africa beat Japan for the bronze medal, although the Japanese team produced the biggest upset of the event with its 14-12 opening group-stage win over a New Zealand team featuring All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams.

WHAT’S NEW: Ireland, South Korea and Canada will be making Olympic debuts in the men’s tournament, while China and the Russian team will be first-timers in the women’s competition. The schedule has been flipped since Rio, with the men now kicking off the Olympic tournament on July 26 and the women’s event running July 29-31.

TOKYO EXPECTATIONS: The Fijian men have a very good shot at successfully defending their Olympic title, and New Zealand’s Black Ferns are in the kind of form that could result in them upgrading to gold in the women’s competition. International competition has been limited because of travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, so there’s no real global form guide. Fiji was too good for New Zealand and Australia in the Oceania Sevens tournament in June, its first competition in more than a year, and is in a tough group with Britain and Japan. New Zealand’s women’s team put together back-to-back warm-up series wins recently at home and away against defending champion Australia. The U.S. women beat Britain three times in a warmup tournament in Los Angeles and, along with Canada and the Brits, should feature heavily in medal contention.

ATHLETES TO WATCH: With his fleet feet and knack for finding the slightest gaps in defense, Jerry Tuwai should feature heavily in Tokyo as leader of the Fiji team. The 2016 Olympic gold medalist has been voted as the premier player of the last decade in men’s sevens. If fully recovered from a broken leg, U.S. winger Perry Baker will also play a big role. The two-time world sevens player of the year returned from injury and scored tries against Argentina, Britain and South Korea in a recent tune-up tournament. Lote Tuqiri, with the Fijian name and the Japanese jersey, should be among the favorites for the home crowd as Japan tries to improve on its fourth-place finish in Rio. New Zealand Black Ferns star Portia Woodman is a fast, powerful, out-and-out try-scorer. She topped the points scoring with 10 tries in Rio and has hit form quickly this year. Canada’s Ghislaine Landry has scored more points than anyone in the world sevens series and is again expected to feature among the scoring in Tokyo.

GOLD MEDAL MOMENTS: July 28, men’s final at Tokyo Stadium; July 31, women’s final.

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