Swashbuckling Fiji Rugby Sevens team has had to contend with Covid-19 and a devastating cyclone in the past year… but the reigning Olympic champions have improved since Rio and will take some stopping after easing into Tokyo 2020 semi-finals
There’s a dangerous temptation to sentimentalise the Fiji Rugby Sevens team.
Their Pacific Island nation has had a brutal reckoning with Covid and a devastating cyclone in the past year and the team in some ways have held things together, even agreeing after some initial uncertainty to wear jerseys encouraging their rugby-obsessed nation to vaccinate.
They don’t generally do public talking, though when captain Jerry Tuwai leaned across a crash barrier to speak yesterday, you could see why they have become to Sevens what the All Blacks have been to XVs rugby for so long.
Fiji’s Rugby Sevens team are very impressive and will take some stopping at the Tokyo Games
Captain Jerry Tuwai has spoken eloquently about the challenge of defending their title
‘Before, we were not Olympic champions but now we are and all the teams are gunning for us and expectations from our home island is really high,’ Tuwai said.
Was this team as strong as the one which took gold in Rio, he was asked. ‘If we lose here we are not a better side,’ he said. ‘That’s why we are here – to defend our gold medal.’
Five years on from the Rio Olympic final against Great Britain, in which Fiji waltzed to a 43-7 win, the two nations had just met again in a group stage match which could conceivably be a dress rehearsal for Wednesday’s final.
However, Great Britain have the small matter of the All Blacks to negotiate in a semi-final first.
The 33-7 score-line in Fiji’s favour on Tuesday was marginally less emphatic than Rio but brutal nonetheless before a defensive brick wall.
Fiji won the gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 under the management of Ben Ryan (left)
GB’s Dan Bibby looked the most capable of navigating a path through it, though Semi Radradra, the Bristol Bears centre who flips between the codes, and Asaeli Tuivuaka, who scored two tries, were a devastating presence for Fiji.
Great Britain’s Dan Norton was reluctant to offer a critical comparison of the Fiji sides of 2016 and 2021, save to say that the entire sport has moved on from the levels at the Rio Olympics.
‘Everyone is technically and tactically better than they were then,’ he said. ‘Every team is better drilled but I think as much as it is worrying about what they’re doing, it’s also about us being better in our defence.’
There is more homogeneity to Fiji than there used to be. For years the island nation’s players would leave the island to make their fortune elsewhere.
Governing body World Rugby has played a part in helping the nation to develop high performance facilities which have allowed stars to stay on the island. Far more of this team are.
Current coach Gareth Baber (right) and his side are favourites to retain their golds in Tokyo
They beat Team GB 33-7 in their group match in what could be a dress rehearsal for the final
There is more focus on nutrition and recovery now and a more pragmatic philosophy. The team seem less inclined to give away poor penalties in high pressure situations.
British hopes of glory are by no means extinguished, after a thrilling quarter final on Tuesday in which they came from 21-0 down to beat USA 26-21.
The pace and brevity of the sport makes it unpredictable. Fiji could have lost in their own group game with Japan had the host nation opted for a tap-and-go from a penalty in the last minute, rather than what proved to be an inaccurate line-out.
If Great Britain can defeat the All Blacks, who needed to come from behind to beat Australia in their last group game, they will need to start with more intensity against Fiji than they did yesterday.
‘We didn’t really hit the ground in the first seven minutes,’ Norton said of that game. ‘In knock-out rugby if you don’t get it right, that’s what’s going to happen.’