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On Oct. 20, 2019, Tokyo Stadium was home to the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match between South Africa and Japan. The match was sold out, with the 50,000-seat stadium overflowing with fans from around the world.

Almost two years and a pandemic later, the stadium on Wednesday sat empty for the finals of the OIympic rugby sevens match between New Zealand and defending champions Fiji.

To create some sense of atmosphere, pre-recorded fan noise was pumped into the stadium, but that was all but drowned out whenever light aircraft took off or landed at neighboring Chofu Airport. It was far from the electric atmosphere of those Rugby World Cup finals.

For the players out on the pitch, however, the lack of fans didn’t diminish the quality of play. The final was a frenetic, blisteringly fast game of rugby, hotly contested until the end but ultimately won by an ebullient Fiji 27-12. The gold was Fiji’s first medal of the Olympics.

Earlier in the afternoon a jubilant Argentina took the bronze, defeating an exhausted-looking Great Britain 17-12. Prior to the match, the Great Britain team took a knee in solidarity against racism.

And in a show of Japan’s “tech-forward” Olympics, the rugby ball was delivered onto the pitch before each match by a scaled down version of Toyota’s e-pallete car, equipped with a robotic arm.

In a timeline in which COVID-19 didn’t exist, the Olympic sevens would have been the ideal follow-up to the Rugby World Cup in 2019, a tournament that helped cement Rugby’s popularity here after Japan’s surprise victory over South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Stands were full throughout the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Stands were full throughout the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Figures released in March 2020 by World Rugby, rugby’s governing body, showed that the 2019 Rugby World Cup was the most-watched rugby event ever, with more than 857 million people worldwide tuning into games. In Japan, a cumulative audience of 425 million watched the games on TV — five times the Japanese viewership of the previous tournament in England in 2015.

Japan’s 28-21 win over Scotland in 2019, which gave the Brave Blossoms a place in the quarterfinals for the first time, was watched by a domestic TV audience of 54.8 million — more than the number of people who tuned into the 2002 FIFA World Cup final, held in Yokohama.

Compared to its elder brother, rugby union, sevens is a shorter, more intense game. As the name suggests, just seven players play on each team, on the same size pitch as used by the 15-side game.

The game places an emphasis on speed — thickset forwards are a notable absence — and accordingly each half is only seven minutes long, with tries coming hand over fist. It was first included in the Olympics at Rio 2016, with Tokyo 2020 providing the competition with its second Olympic outing.

Japan’s sevens team was unable to match the 2019 performance of its union team at these Olympics, placing 11th out of 12 teams competing, ahead of only South Korea.

The women’s sevens tournament begins Thursday, with the finals scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.

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