There couldn’t have been two more wildly different sports inducted into the Olympics for these Games — golf: standing in one steady spot and teeing off, reluctant to even take off in Rio and bringing next to nothing new to the Olympic table; and Rugby Sevens – never stops running — that sport, exhilarating for fans who watch, and eager for those who’ve arrived to play it in Rio. And, rugby brings Sonny Bill Williams, perhaps the most pulse-quickening athlete who was outside the Games ambit until this moment, brings him right into the Olympic fold.
It’s just as well that Brazil should witness sport’s most anticipated rise of the right wing — though in a sport where running with the ball in hand is legal. Garrincha would have approved. As will Jairzinho, the Hurricane man who replaced Garrincha for Brazil, of that lightening wizardry from the right flank, for he used to blitz away here at Rio’s famous football home Botafogo.
Different sporting codes, alright. But the magic of speed on the flanks, the genius of pace outside of sprints, will all come alive to the thrill of watching rugby fans, even in football’s spiritual home.
A 100 press-folk attended an official media meet up with Sonny Bill Williams, the All Black legend who twinkle toes between different football codes (he is also a heavyweight boxer with a belt) and has completed his year-long embedding into Sevens from the Fifteens squad, lining up for New Zealand’s 7s as rugby returns to Olympics after 1924. Garrincha had his dribble, Jairzinho the manic speed – Sonny boy has his revolutionary one-handed catch and off-load – even as the tacklers ruckus around him like buzzing bees – when he whizzes down the right paddock. They reckon the twice World Cup champ could form the enduring image of this Olympics, as speed gets talked of in a language made hallowed by the reigning deity Usain Bolt.
Sonny Bill puts the Olympics on a pedestal – the All Black, pegging it above the World Cups. “It would have to surpass it. As an athlete there is no level higher than Olympics. I am fortunate to learn off these boys in my team and train my butt off. We want to be successful,” he told a gaping press corps.
The Olympics mean much to Sir Gordon Tietjens, a 7s coach since 1994, since the sport started getting played ever, dubbed rugby’s Alex Ferguson who will end his career with New Zealand at the Games – win or lose. Six different countries have won 10 World Series tournaments, making it anyone’s gold medal.
There’s a pair of English coaches — Ben Ryan who’s camped with the big men from Fiji to bring the island nation their first gold, and Simon Amore who’s helming the bigger, bossier, messier island Great Britain — with their Welsh, Scottish and English constituents playing together in what has been just a 6-week-old union.
But all talk of Rugby Sevens, even among Brazilians who are keen on taking after arch football rivals Argentina and Colombia in their Sevens aspirations, is centred around the northerner Americans.
Unlikely defending champion
USA are the unlikely defending champions having last won in 1924, and the land of fortified shouldered football – American NFL, has turned up in Rio in the form of sporting converts from Collegiate sprints and American Football.
Nate Ebner won the Super Bowl with New England Patriots and is leading the cultural transition of the two combat sports, not-so-distant cousins even as Rugby Sevens undergoes the ultimate mainstreaming by joining the Olympics. “I think people will definitely fall in love with the speed of the game. It doesn’t have the stops of football or basketball. For me it’s so fun I’d struggle to not find my way back into it,” he said. Football’s (the NFL one we mean) explosive, a play lasting 5-6 seconds; sevens is more cardiovascular.
And Ebner admits to Sevens being more cerebral than the dashing-car-of-humans that American football tends to be.
“Rugby takes understanding on the field, it’s not just who’s the best athlete. I’d love to see what other NFL colleagues would have been like if they’d grown playing rugby, and how they would’ve imposed their physical stature.”
But sevens is more about swift physicality, and Ebner notes that in his entire football watching career he’d seen numerous athletes but finds team mate Carlin Isles the fastest man he’s ever seen play this sport.
Isles grew up a homeless kid, desperate to not be just another sorry statistic. He was fast enough to crack Sevens after he started studying biomechanics and discovered rugby.
But more fiercely, Isles is speed in Sevens at Rio – a dazzle drug to savour on the 2-day competition, and the Americans who might continue losing the 100-gold to Jamaican Bolt, are trumpeting their Sevens star as the man setting the speed gun on fire. “He’s so fast, he makes fast people look slow,” said USA’s Danny Barrett. “Over 20 metres he’s faster than Usain Bolt,” he crows. “If you can run that fast with ball in hand, that’s unfair,” he concedes in jealous envy, before summing it up: “If you need to score late in the game and need to pull a rabbit out of the hat, that rabbit is his legs.”
Should the Americans defend their Olympic title and Rugby Sevens enter the USA lexicon of Olympic success — nothing less than a bastion stormed, a football code will be trumped by a rugby code, in a country where football is the hands-free football we know. History’s limbs and tentacles enticingly beckon Rugby Sevens.