Outsiders get a shot at Olympic rugby sevens

5:37 pm on 21 June 2016

OPINION: Maybe there was some divine intervention over the weekend when Spain shocked Samoa 22-19 to claim the final Olympic sevens rugby qualifying spot.

Spain grabbed the 12th spot at the Olympics when they upset the rampant Samoans at Stade Louis II in Monaco. Ignacio Martin scored in the dying moments to earn Spain their victory.

Ignacio Martin

Ignacio Martin Photo: Photosport

The Spaniards made world news for other reasons in February, with their lifesaving heroics in Fiji during Cyclone Winston.

The sevens players were in Fiji for a couple of second-tier tournaments when the level five cyclone hit. It brought with it 360km/h gusts and consistent winds of 230km/h, making it the most fearsome hurricane ever to batter Fiji.

The Spaniards were staying at the Uprising Resort, 50km from Suva, and sprang into action. They spent hours filling sandbags and running them to a makeshift wall so the huge tidal waves could be repelled, and pitched in wherever they were needed around the resort.

Hotel manager James Pridgeon was full of admiration for the Spaniards. "They kept us safe," he said. "They didn't put their own lives first."

The Spaniards hung around Fiji for several more weeks, assisting in trying to bring some semblance of normality back to life in the devastated country.

Their gallant deeds put sevens rugby on the front - rather than the sports - pages, and the Spaniards built a large worldwide following.

Spain had been dismayed in 2015 when they lost their spot to Japan in the 16-team world sevens series. Ordinarily that would have spelt the end of their chances of qualifying for the Olympics.

But they regrouped, basing themselves at Spain's Olympic training headquarters in Madrid. They entered a series of lesser sevens events around the world - including those in Fiji - and gradually improved.

Even so, when the Olympic sevens hopefuls gathered in Monaco over the weekend, Spain were only outsiders. Samoa, coming off a victory in the Paris leg of the grand prix circuit, were top seeds, followed by Canada and Russia.

However, Spain seemed to have Lady Luck in their corner and won a tight quarter-final 12-7 over Ireland and a torrid semi-final 17-12 over Russia.

In the final, Samoa led 19-12, but this was one match Spain seemed fated to win.

A few years ago, New Zealand would have been given good odds to scoop the men's and women's sevens golds in Rio. That's not the case now.

Fiji enter the men's tournament as favourites after a strong showing on the 2016 sevens circuit. Behind them, South Africa and the United States loom as likely medallists.

Gordon Tietjens' All Black sevens would rate perhaps fourth favourites, followed closely by Argentina, Australia and Kenya. No-one is game to predict what Great Britain will do as the team has hardly played (in sevens tournaments, the home nations generally play under their individual flags).

However, after their unlikely build-up and form in the Monaco qualifier, keep an eye on Spain.

New Zealand have more chance of winning gold in the women's sevens, though they failed to win even one tournament in this year's circuit. Australia will begin favourites, followed by coach Sean Horan's New Zealanders.

The final women's spot will be decided at the qualifying tournament in Dublin next weekend.

* Joseph Romanos is a long-time sports journalist and broadcaster, and the author of nearly 50 books.

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