Sevens rugby is new to the Olympics but already it feels like a glorious adornment. Even a rainy night in Rio could not dilute the sudden death drama, with Team GB now facing a semi-final against South Africa after a scarcely believable “golden point” extra-time win over Argentina. A tournament which has also seen Japan reach the last four and New Zealand bow out prematurely is proving to be utterly compelling.
GB’s triumph was also among the most perverse international sevens contests ever played, with neither side able to score a single point in normal time. In the abbreviated form of the game this is virtually unheard of, akin to batting out for a draw in T20 cricket.
The British medal quest also looked over with seconds remaining after James Davies was sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle in front of the posts. The Argentina captain, Gaston Revel, merely had to slot over a regulation drop-goal to seal victory; instead, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, he sliced the greasy ball wide to grant GB an unlikely reprieve.
The rules now decreed the first team to score in extra-time would advance, only for GB’s captain, Tom Mitchell, to strike the right upright with a nervous drop-goal effort of his own.
Fortunately for Mitchell and his team an Argentinian fumble offered them an immediate second chance and the dangerous Dan Bibby surged through a rare gap to keep the British campaign tantalisingly alive.
Neither Bibby nor Davies could quite believe it, having both feared they had missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “That’s the first time I’ve ever prayed before that kick,” revealed Davies, the younger brother of the Wales and Lions centre Jonathan. “When I got a yellow card I was thinking: ‘What have I done?’ The guys showed some serious character there. I am just buzzing ... my knees are weak.”
The 25-year-old Bibby felt similarly relieved. “When Argentina had a shot, I thought: ‘This could be it, that’s our Olympic dream over.’ But some sort of luck was on our side. We spoke at full-time about keeping calm and not panicking. We played the clock, got our seventh man back on and kept working to force turnovers.
“I was just in the right place at the right time. All I was thinking was: ‘Don’t drop it, don’t drop it.’ I’ve never seen a game of sevens like that. I’ve been playing for three or four years and never played in a 0-0 draw, let alone with two missed kicks to win it as well.”
Coupled with the earlier 21-19 win over New Zealand, it was a day to encourage hopes of an unexpected medal. Something even more special will be required to beat a strong South African side, who comfortably saw off Australia 22-5, but Davies remains optimistic: “It hasn’t been pretty all week but we’re winning and we’ve come here for one thing. You only get one chance every four years.”
A can-do attitude has also been driving Japan, who followed up their first day win over New Zealand by defeating France 12-7 thanks to a late try from Teruya Goto.
“I thought we’d be lucky to make the quarters, never mind the semis,” admitted his New Zealand-born team-mate Lomano Lemeki. “We’re just having fun with our mates. I thought we’d come here, give it a good go and win a few games. It’s pretty crazy.
“We’ve been told to turn our phones off because everyone at home is getting a bit carried away. I think rugby is starting to get bigger than soccer in Japan – which it should because their soccer team’s not that great.”
New Zealand, in contrast, have had a tournament to forget.
Already beset by injuries they only made the last eight courtesy of a missed USA conversion against Fiji having trailed Great Britain 21-0 at half-time in their final pool game. Injuries to Sonny Bill Williams, Joe Webber and the captain Scott Curry clearly did not help but despite a slight improvement in their quarter-final against Fiji, they went down 12-7. It leaves Fiji, who will now face Japan, on course to secure the first Olympic medal in their country’s history.
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