RIO DE JANEIRO – The first Olympic rugby gold medal in 92 years has gone to a group of Australian women that includes a mechanic, an elite former sprinter and a 21-year-old newcomer who has traveled around Rio de Janeiro carrying an inflatable kangaroo.
Australia absorbed an expected early battering from New Zealand and conceded an early try before responding with four consecutive tries to win the women’s rugby sevens final 24-17 on Monday.
“It was a typical trans-Tasman battle,” Australia co-captain Shannon Parry said, referring to the intense sporting rivalry between her country and neighboring New Zealand. “Very excited, very elated with what we’ve achieved.”
The sevens world series-winning Australian women extended their streak to five straight wins against 2013 World Cup winner New Zealand, quite a change in fortune in the broader rugby context.
Australia’s men’s team, the Wallabies, have struggled against New Zealand’s famous All Blacks for more than a decade in the traditional 15-a-side game. The All Blacks have not only retained the Bledisloe Cup, they’ve also won two World Cups — beating Australia in the final last year.
The women’s sevens team usurped New Zealand in the rankings, winning the world series for the first time last season. The Australian Rugby Union put them on contracts, set up an academy for sevens and allowed them to train as professional athletes.
“When I started the game, women’s rugby in Australia wasn’t very big,” Parry said. “It was very much a minority sport.
“To think, eight years down the track, I’m an Olympian, I play rugby as a full-time job. I just think how far the game has gone.”
Also Monday, Japan’s first taste of Olympic rugby ended in double disappointment as the Sakura Sevens fell 33-5 to host Brazil in the women’s ninth-place classification final.
With a core team place in the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series for 2016-17 also on the line, Japan paid the penalty for having a player sent to the sin bin and not playing with a sweeper.
And with Paula Ishibashi and Beatriz Muhlbauer inspiring their teammates, Brazil made it two wins over Japan in the past two days at Deodoro Stadium.
Rugby is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1924, but in the condensed sevens format and with women competing for the first time. Canada beat Britain 33-10 for bronze, avenging a 22-0 loss the previous day at the end of the pool stage. The United States beat France 19-5, after a come-from-behind 12-7 win over Fiji, to secure fifth place.
The men’s tournament kicks off Tuesday, with Fiji the favorite for gold.