Rio Olympics 2016: Great Britain’s women’s rugby sevens team cruise past Canada and Fiji in hunt for Olympic glory

The easy part done and dusted, Britain’s women’s rugby sevens team wake this morning knowing they are less than half an hour away from an historic Olympic gold medal.

In reality, it is little more than they expected. A cumulative total of 110 points scored and only 10 conceded shows just how dominant Simon Middleton’s side have been in their opening four matches in Rio.

While the minnows of Brazil and Japan were swatted away as minor irritants, it was the 22-0 thumping of Canada in the final group game on Sunday morning that truly set tongues wagging before Fiji were brushed aside 26-7 in the quarter-final with little trouble.

All of which means Britain now face the considerably more daunting task of three-time World Series winners New Zealand in the semi-final, with a place in the gold medal match awaiting the winner.


Great Britain's Emily Scarratt, looks on after scoring a try during the women's rugby sevens match against Canada at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro

Emily Scarratt scores for Great Britain against Canada

Credit:
AP Photo

If they are to reach the final, it is the victory over Canada that may provide the crucial confidence boost they desire. Despite England, who have provided all but one player to this British squad, failing to finish above Canada in the last three editions of the World Series, it took just three minutes for Middleton’s side to take a lead that they never looked like relinquishing.

Captain Emily Scarratt scored twice in the rout, but it was Amy Wilson-Hardy who stole the show with a stunning solo try from deep inside her own half.

That win ensured what appeared, on paper at least, to be a simple last-eight encounter against Fiji. So it proved with Abbie Brown receiving the ball direct from kick-off at the Deodoro Stadium to give Britain a lead after precisely 17 seconds.


Brits in Rio talk about the Olympics so far

Brits in Rio talk about the Olympics so far
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The Pacific Islanders soon leveled, but that was as close as they came to threatening an upset with Alice Richardson, Joanne Watmore and Brown all touching down to secure the win.

“We’ve put some good points on Canada and Fiji so I think we’ve done ourselves justice,” said Brown.

“We keep building with every game and I think we’ve shown that we’ve got what it takes.

“This is where we’ve always aimed to be and we’ve got to be thinking about getting to the final.

“This is what we’ve dreamed about for two years so hopefully we can put it all into play.”

Favourites Australia survived an unexpected draw against United States in their last group game to ease past Spain 24-0 in the quarter-final and set up a semi-final clash with Canada.

How Great Britain became a sporting powerhouse and reminded us all that success is infectious

What a weekend that was. After 48 hours of wham-bam action, everywhere you look there are now British sporting champions. Four Brits won titles at Wimbledon; three Britons have won stages in the Tour de France, one of whom wears the yellow jersey; plus, at Silverstone, it was a Briton who emerged through the downpour in triumph to win his home grand prix.

And the interesting thing is, this was no one-off, no momentary blip of triumphalist happenstance. This was part of a pattern we need to get used to.


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Wimbledon 2016: watch Andy Murray lift men’s singles trophy
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For those of us of certain sporting vintage such success is a sizeable opposition to our assumptions. Brought up on decades of Australian, German and American sporting supremacy, we grew up anticipating plucky home failure, of Brits falling at the last. Our expectation when watching the rest of the world scoop up the prizes was of the commentator informing us that our girl was still in there, battling for seventh place, just behind the Lithuanian.

In the aftermath of disappointment in every world-class event we expected to cast covetous eyes at other sporting cultures and wonder why we could not do what the Spaniards, Belgians, French and South Africans managed. If only, we would complain, we could be a bit more like them.


Mark Cavendish

Mark Cavendish is now behind only the great Eddy Merckx in the number of Tour de France stage wins

Credit:
AFP

Not any more. What was so challenging about last weekend was that it was not a sudden Kilimanjaro-style peak rising from a flat plain of disappointment, inevitably to sink back down from whence it came. Already this summer we have seen the England rugby team eviscerating the Australians, Wales reaching the semi-finals of the Euros, England’s bright and vivacious young cricket side battering all comers.

And then there are the rowers, sailors, triathletes, shooters, gymnasts and equestrians gearing up for the Rio Games by scooping up world and European titles by the barrowload, not to mention Danny Willett’s Masters triumph earlier this year.


England's Danny Willett wins The Masters at Augusta

Danny Willett: Masters win is ‘just crazy’
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What we are witnessing is a profound shift in expectation. Give or take the odd national football side, our sporting practitioners now go out expecting not simply to do their best and hope something might come of it. They go out thinking they are going to win. And we, their viewing public, are struggling to come to terms with the profound shift in how we view our sports people in action.

This was the reason Andy Murray’s victory on Sunday was so challenging: never for a moment did he look as though he would do anything other than emerge triumphant. At Wimbledon, we have come to expect Britons to fail heroically, to somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Not Murray. His lynx-eyed certainty was unsettling to observe. Sitting in the Centre Court stands watching his unyielding process the only explanation you could come up with was that he must be secretly German.


Andy Murray

Andy Murray made light work of Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon men’s singles final

Credit:
Getty

But, according to those engaged in Britain’s sporting transformation, there was nothing surprising about Murray. It is part of a pattern. “It’s not a fluke,” said Chris Froome on Monday, as he reflected on the success of British riders on this year’s Tour. “You look how far British Cycling has come in the last few years and it is not just by chance. It has been planned, it has been structured, we’ve seen the rise of talent.”

Froome was talking about the two-wheeled revolution. But as the director of Team Sky, Sir Dave Brailsford, suggested, the methodologies that have produced three Tour victories since 2012 have now become standard practice everywhere.

“It is not just cycling, it is across sport,” Brailsford said. “That doesn’t happen overnight, that takes investment, and Britain has been brave enough to invest in sport.”


Chris Froome

Chris Froome is already decked out in yellow at this year’s Tour de France

Credit:
AFP

This is the fundamental: money. It began to be injected into British sport soon after the 1996 Olympics, where Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent between them shared Britain’s only gold medal. The arrival of a system of Lottery and Exchequer funding meant that athletes and coaches could become full time, could concentrate solely on the application of excellence.

But, as many a Premier League football club have demonstrated, having money is not necessarily a guarantee of success. It is how you use it. And from the start, UK Sport, the body that dispenses cash to Olympic and Paralympic contenders, was astute at determining how it was spent.


Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton waves to his fans after winning the British Grand Prix

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Getty

“We have 17 key elements to the World Class Programme, and each sport continuously monitors how it is doing within them,” said Simon Timson, performance director of UK Sport.

“And to do that you need peer review. It requires that sports share knowledge of best practice.”

So it is that success becomes infectious. As Vince Lombardi, the first guru of coaching psychology, once insisted, winning is a habit. In Britain, we are on the verge of making success habitual. And those of us sniping from the sidelines had better get used to changing our tune.

Sport England to spend £250m on getting inactive people exercising 

A quarter-of-a-billion-pound drive to get the most inactive people in England exercising is being announced today as part of the Government’s new strategy on sport.

A least £250 million – treble the amount currently spent – will be directed at the 28 per cent of English people who fail to undertake moderate exercise for at least half an hour each week.

The plan will be unveiled as part of Sport England’s four-year strategy from 2017, under which national governing bodies such as the Football Association will also be forced to compete for funding, rather than simply being handed tens of millions of pounds, in order to boost participation.


Greg Dyke

The FA and chairman Greg Dyke will be forced to compete for funding

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Getty Images

At least a quarter of grassroots funding body Sport England’s budget will now be devoted to tackling the country’s inactivity epidemic, regarded as a major cause of Britain’s obesity crisis.

Research has shown the health benefits of exercise to be exponentially greater for the most physically inactive.

The change of strategy follows a flatlining in the number of people taking part in sport since the London 

Olympics and Paralympics, prior to which there had been a steady growth.

Sports minister Tracey Crouch last summer vowed to “rip up” the existing model and in December the Government published a fresh vision entitled “Sporting Future”, which estimated the physical and mental health problems caused by inactivity.

Nick Bitel, the Sport England chairman, said: “There is a considerable shift towards dealing with people who are currently inactive.” They include a disproportionate number of women, the elderly, the disabled and the poor.

The success of Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign demonstrated the effectiveness of targeting under-represented groups.


Sport England

Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign has helped boost participation

Funding for participation programmes will be focused on those proven to get people exercising, irrespective of the activity, as opposed to the current model of handouts to encourage national governing bodies to attract people to their own sport.

Bitel acknowledged the existing strategy had not resulted in “a major shift in behaviour” and that “a completely different mindset” was now required.

“We’re trying to move it from the focus on the sport all the time. The lens is on the person,” he said, admitting that some governing bodies would inevitably end up with “reduced funding” from a £1 billion quadrennial budget which mirrors that of the current cycle.

But he said those who could demonstrate they had a role to play in the “mass market” could be spared cuts.

He added: “If those organisations have got a role to play in the mass market in getting people active – which is not necessarily something that they’ve been doing before – then we should work with them to try to get them to change their behaviours, change the way in which they deliver, change their thinking, so that they can help deliver these objectives.”  

Residency rule needs a five-year minimum

Tongan talents Wales' Taulupe Faletau and England's Billy Vunipola

Wales’ Taulupe Faletau tangles with England’s Billy Vunipola during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Photo: Rex Features

Those small-minded people who rail against foreign influences in our society, the product of a Little Island mentality, should watch two Tongan cousins, Viliami ‘Billy’ Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau, go head to head on Saturday at Twickenham, parading their vast array of skills, power, warrior spirit, grace under pressure and deep sense of kinship to each other and to the game, and then say that their lives have not been enriched.

By all means let us criticise the eligibility rulings that allow the likes of Ireland back-rower CJ Stander to be recruited as a ‘project player’ or the schooling of Scotland prop WP Nel into national ranks, nurtured to that end and qualifying after three years’ residency.

CJ Stander takes on England

There are many others, all legitimate, all dedicated to their adopted cause, all plying their professional trade as allowed under current regulations. That is one thing. And needs to be questioned. The more deep-rooted integration of Vunipola and Faletau is quite another.

The melting pot that is British society is a thing to be cherished, not vilified. And the show-within-the-show, that is the battle of the England and Wales No 8s, encapsulates that. These are both men proud of their Tongan roots. But they are also deeply appreciative of the opportunities that have been bestowed upon them by dint of their fathers’ arrival in the valleys of Gwent in the early years of professionalism in the mid-Nineties.

Manu Tuilagi went to school in Leicester while his older brothers were playing for the club

They came, they played, they stayed. Their offspring have spent their formative years here. As has Manu Tuilagi – one of the youngest of the Tuilagi clan who were based in the UK, hired hands in the fledgling newborn world of pro rugby – living with his older brothers in Leicester, going to school there, saved at the last minute in his teens from deportation over a visa issue. None should question Tuilagi’s right to wear the England shirt.

England must find Test animals

Nationality is an emotive issue. Of course it is. But it is as well to recognise that there has long been fluidity in these isles. And those who cling to a narrow and restrictive outlook, clamouring only for those of supposed indigenous stock, conveniently ignore the fact that Englishmen of the Empire travelled far and wide in years gone by, settling and breeding, which is why the likes of South African-born Brad Barritt has wholly proper claim on Englishness through his mother, or Wales’s recruit from New Zealand, Gareth Anscombe, who has Welsh parentage. There are many others of similar ilk.

Scotland’s WP Nel flies into contact against Italy

But there is confusion, too, as to where the boundaries of eligibility extend as the cock-up over Castres wing, Somoan-born, New Zealand-reared David Smith, illustrated a few weeks ago. Smith now has claim on the shortest ever international call-up. Summoned on Sunday to the French training camp at Marcoussis, assembled for dinner, he happened to mention that he had represented New Zealand Sevens several years earlier, which set alarm bells ringing, and he was on the first flight back to south-west France the following day.

Jones v Gatland is a classic of its own

And this despite the fact that he has lived for five years in France, has a French wife, could become a French national with passport status as a result and qualify as of right if he were then to play under the Olympic banner in Rio. Yes, complex and daft.

The Vunipola brothers sit either side of Toby Faletau after an England v Wales matchBilly Vunipola: “Win or lose, family comes first”  Photo: Twitter

France has a deep well of players, the best-resourced union in the world alongside the Rugby Football Union. You might imagine that they would have little need to look elsewhere for players to fill their ranks at Test level. But you would be wrong. There has been an orchestrated campaign to scour the Pacific Islands for young talent that can be enticed to take up academy scholarships in the islands under French auspices with an eye on grooming future international players.

The beef should never be with players but with the system. In fact, it is worth noting that there has rarely been a peep of protest from Test players about their ranks being either infiltrated, or added to, depending on your perspective, by other non-native players to that country. It is not the origin of a player that matters but his commitment to the cause.

That is how he is judged. It has to be said that in such a tribal event as the Six Nations, the passionate belting out of the anthems, as demonstrated by Stander and his word-perfect rendition of Amhran na bhFiann, is an outward sign of such transition. But there is something deeply unsettling and unsatisfactory in the deliberate targeting of a player in, say, South Africa or New Zealand, as was the case with Ireland centre Jared Payne, brought up with a view to qualifying for another country through the residency route. It is too calculated, too cold-eyed, out of kilter with the spirit of the game, if indeed such a tenet still exists.

The parameters are set in place by administrators. And that is what has to be judged, not any of the players themselves.

Three years is too short. A qualification of five years is more appropriate.

HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015-16: Fiji come back to defeat Australia in Las Vegas and top overall table

HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015-16: Las Vegas photo gallery – all the colour and action from round five

Winning feeling: Fiji came from behind against Australia to win the Las Vegas Sevens on Sunday Photo: AFP

An emotional Fiji team came back from 15-0 down at the interval to defeat Australia in the windswept final of the Las Vegas Sevens on Sunday evening.

The 21-15 victory in the fifth stop of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015-16 – the half-way stage of the campaign – means that the South Pacific islanders top the overall table, with 91 points, ahead of South Africa with 86 and New Zealand with 82.

Last year Fiji won in Las Vegas, and claimed the Sevens Series crown, and in the Nevada Desert Ben Ryan’s side, fuelled by a desire to bring some cheer to their countrymen affected by the devastating Cyclone Winston which ripped though the country, again showed why they are gold-medal favourites for many when sevens makes its Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro later this year.

At least 44 people died when Cyclone Winston – the most powerful storm to make landfall in the southern hemisphere – obliterating schools, houses, churches, roads and crops over the past month. At its peak around Feb 20 the winds produced reached 180mph.

In the Las Vegas final Australia, with the wind at their backs, pinned Fiji inside their own half and scored three unconverted tries to Sam Myers, Ed Jenkins and Cameron Clark to take what seemed to be an insurmountable lead at the break. Crucially Clark failed to convert any of those three tries, though, with the wind making it tough.

But Fiji rallied after halftime with two tries to substitute Kitone Talinga, one of which spread the length of the field, and sealed the match with another length-of-the-field try to Savenaca Rawaca (who Saracens signed recently) after Australia XVs star Quade Cooper, playing in his first Sevens Series tournament, dropped the ball a metre from the Fiji line.

Ryan said the Fiji win would be a huge tonic to their nation which is struggling to recover from devastating Cyclone Winston. “It’s been an awful, tragic time back in Fiji for the whole population and there’s going to be some dark days ahead,” the former England head coach said. “I am just glad that we have put a smile on the face of all the people back home.”

On the difficult weather in the final Ryan added: “The wind made it an awful game of rugby but second half we fought back and I’m really proud of the boys to get a win in the conditions. That wind was such a leveller. In some pretty awful conditions I thought Australia played brilliantly. In the first half their game management was excellent and we just managed to hang on to the ball at some crucial times in the second half and we got a bit of momentum.”

Osea Kolinisau, who was named player of the final, said the Fiji team had been motivated by the tragedy at home. “I reminded the boys this week that we needed to remember the people back home who were victims of Cyclone Winston and that we needed to give them something to be happy about after all the devastation,” he said.

Earlier, Australia had battled through to the final after a bizarre semi-final win over South Africa which saw them advance after being awarded two penalty tries.

South Africa looked to have done enough as they led 12-7 with just seconds remaining and Australia down to six men after Cooper’s sin-binning.

However the maverick fly-half returned to join one last attack for the Australians which ended with captain Jenkins hauled down short of the line after a high tackle by South Africa’s Rosco Specman.

Specman was given his marching orders for the tackle and Australia were awarded a second penalty try of the game which was duly converted by Cooper for a nail-biting victory.

It capped a miserable match for Specman, who had earlier been sin-binned for another high tackle which saw Australia earn their first penalty try of the game.

Fiji meanwhile reached the final after defeating hosts the United States 21-14 and were always in control with Jasa Veremalua, Vertigo Ravouvou and Pio Tuwai all dotting down for tries.

The United States fought back with tries from Danny Barrett and former American football player Perry Baker but all too often were undone by basic errors as they sought to build momentum against the Fijians.

Friday – the first day of the three-day event – was a landmark day, for various individuals. Cooper made his Sevens Series debut – “it’s just a whole ball of excitement, it’s a festival vibe and I love that” – while another XVs star Bryan Habana crossed for his first South African try with his in the format, 12 years after making his sevens debut. He scored with his first touch against Canada in a 33-7 victory. “It was on my bucket list for the weekend,” the 32-year-old winger said.

Ahead of that same match Canadian veteran Phil Mack was congratulated by Nick Powell, the South African head coach, and gifted a special pendant as a mark of him making his 50th Sevens Series appearance. The 30-year-old duly showed he still has what it takes to impress and managed a try against the Blitzbokke. His captain, John Moonlight, praised the 5ft 7in scrum-half, calling him a “little magician”.

Also Kenyan Humphrey Kayange scored his 150th try – and, coincidentally, his country’s 1,500th – in a win over Russia, while his countryman Collins Injera scored thrice on Friday to move within three tries of Englishman Ben Gollings and second place in the all-time leading try-scorers list behind Santiago Gomez Cora of Argentina. Another try over the weekend left him two behind Gollings.

Results from Las Vegas Sevens:

Cup

Final
Fiji 21 Australia 15

Semi-finals
Fiji 21 United States 14
Australia 14 South Africa 12

Bronzemedal match
South Africa 21 United States 10

Plate

Final
New Zealand 27 Japan 7

Semi-finals
New Zealand 24 Argentina 19
Japan 19 Kenya 14

Bowl

Final
Wales 28 France 14

Semi-finals
France 15 Russia 14
Wales 21 Scotland 14

Shield

Final
Samoa 24 Canada 7

Semi-finals
Canada 24 England 7
Samoa 29 Portugal 14

HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015-16: Schedule, calendar fixtures and results

HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015-16: Schedule, calendar fixtures and results

All for one: South Africa huddle ahead of their final in Cape Town, which they won  Photo: MARTIN SERAS LIMA

2015-16 MEN’S STANDINGS (AFTER FIVE EVENTS)

Position Team Points
1 Fiji 91
2 South Africa 86
3 New Zealand 82
4 Australia 73
5 USA 64
6 Argentina 64
7 England 52
8 Kenya 52
9 France 36
10 Scotland 32
11 Samoa 31
12 Canada 23
13 Wales 22
14 Japan 20
15 Portugal 12
16 Russia 9
17 Zimbabwe 1

QUICK-VIEW CALENDAR:

1. Dubai, December 4-5, 2015
2. Cape Town*, December 12-13, 2015
3. Wellington, January 30-31, 2016
4. Sydney*, February 6-7, 2016
5. Las Vegas, March 4-6, 2016
6. Vancouver*, March 12-13, 2016
7. Hong Kong, April 8-10, 2016
8. Singapore*, April 16-17, 2016
9. Paris*, May 14-15, 2016
10. London, May 20-22, 2016

*New venue for 2015-16 season

ROUND-BY-ROUND GUIDE:

1. Dubai
Dates:
December 4-5, 2015
Venue: The Sevens
2015-16 result: Fiji 29-17 England

2. Cape Town
Dates:
December 12-13, 2015
Venue: Cape Town Stadium
2015-16 result: South Africa 29-14 Argentina

3. Wellington
Dates: January 30-31, 2016
Venue:
Westpac Stadium

2015-16 result: New Zealand 24-21 South Africa

Final report
Picture gallery

4. Sydney
Dates: February 6-7, 2016
Venue:
Allianz Stadium
2015-16 result: New Zealand 27-24 Australia

Final report
Picture gallery

5. Las Vegas
Dates: March 4-6, 2016
Venue:
Sam Boyd Stadium
2015-16 result:
Fiji 21-15 Australia

Final report
Picture gallery

6. Vancouver
Dates: March 12-13, 2016
Venue:
BC Place

7. Hong Kong
Dates: April 8-10, 2016
Venue:
Hong Kong Stadium
Reigning champions:
Fiji

8. Singapore
Dates: April 16-17, 2016
Venue:
National Stadium

9. Paris
Dates: May 14-15, 2016
Venue:
Stade Jean-Bouin

10. London
Dates: May 20-22, 2016
Venue:
Twickenham Stadium
Reigning champions:
USA

Bath’s Kyle Eastmond still harbours hopes of England return in time for Australia trip

Kyle Eastmond goes on the attack in the win over London Irish Photo: REX

Kyle Eastmond hopes plenty of spring sunshine and dry pitches will help him sneak aboard the England plane to Australia.

The centre missed out on the World Cup when former head coach Stuart Lancaster axed him from his plans while Eddie Jones, Lancaster’s successor, overlooked him for the Six Nations.

Bath’s disappointing season, having bowed out of Europe early and slumped to lowly depths in the Premiership, plus injuries have also pushed him back in the queue for an international place.

But the 26-year-old, who rejected a move back to rugby league with Warrington Wolves at the start of the year to continue his union career, believes the final two months of the season can be much more fruitful for him and his club.

Eastmond provided the spark and drive behind Bath’s five-try bonus-point win over lowly London Irish and insisted: “I’m only human so naturally I want to play for my country again. It would be nice to get on board that plane to Australia but it’s going to be tough.

“There’s no point even thinking about that possibility unless I carry on playing well for my club and make sure Bath finish the season well.

“Hopefully, I can put all my injuries behind me and I can concentrate on playing and see what happens. It was nice to play with a dry ball for a change, and I feel we are able to play the way we want when the conditions are like this. We needed to put up a decent performance for ourselves and our fans.”

Bath picked up only their second bonus-point win of the season with the 25-17 defeat of Irish, who lie eight points adrift at the foot of the table.

The Exiles, who missed out on a losing bonus point by the thickness of a post when Greig Tonks’s conversion failed, are destined for Championship rugby unless they turn their form around quickly.

They fly to America for their special Premiership match against Saracens on Saturday and head coach Tom Coventry said: “When things aren’t going so well, it’s easy to forget why you play the game. It hurts and the boys showed that emotionally with their body language. They can’t dwell on that for too long because we’ve got to get on a plane tomorrow and fly to New York.”