TOKYO (AP) — The Olympic title defense looked shaky for Australia in a group-deciding loss to the U.S. team. It was over in a surprising quarterfinal loss to Fiji.
A run of upsets on Day 2 of the women’s rugby sevens competition ended with top-ranked New Zealand as the only team from the 2016 podium to reach the semifinals in Tokyo.
U.S. captain Abby Gustaitis was on a high when she scored the clinching try in a comeback 14-12 win over Australia to finish atop the group. Her emotions were at the other extreme later Friday after a 21-12 loss to Britain in the quarterfinals.
That came immediately after the Fijiana stunned Australia, racing to a two-try lead and then fending off Australia’s comeback charge to win 14-12.
“Absolutely devastating … heartbreaking,” Gustaitis said. “It’s sport, it brings you the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Unfortunately, we’re on a low. Britain came out swinging, they didn’t miss a beat. We didn’t get the job done.”
That wasn’t a problem for the title favorites from New Zealand, who lost the Olympic final to Australia in 2016 but has won pretty much everything else since.
The New Zealanders beat the Russian team 36-0 to open the quarterfinal stage, an almost exact repeat of the last group-stage match earlier in the day. New Zealand will meet Fiji in the semifinals.
Britain will meet France, which ended China’s surprising run with a 24-10 victory.
The Fijians have been the biggest movers in a tournament that has been shaped by the lack of international competition in the last 12 months during the coronavirus pandemic. Their win over Canada in the group stage had a big role in the 2016 bronze medalists missing the knockout rounds.
The Fijian women’s team have been in camp for five months, away from family and friends. Now they’re determined to do what no Fijian women have ever done: win an Olympic medal.
They’ve been inspired by their two-time Olympic champion men’s sevens team, which has won back-to-back titles without losing a game.
“It’s all about the nation,” Fijiana captain Rusila Nagasau said. “The nation sent us here to come and do a job, not just for us and our families, but for the country.
“It is a big thing for us to be the first women in Fiji to win a gold medal — that is our aim right now. To make history.”
The Australian women made history by winning the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded in rugby sevens five years ago at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. Now the best they can hope for is fifth place.
“It was one of the hardest games of sevens I’ve ever played,” 2016 gold medalist Charlotte Caslick said of the loss to Fiji. “Credit to the Fijian girls for coming out as strong as they did. They were really, really awesome.”
Caslick said New Zealand’s final loss in Rio had inspired the Black Ferns to dominate in recent years, and she hoped the bitter disappointment for Australia here would help restore her team’s prospects at the next Olympics.
The last session of the group stage was eventful right down to the last moments, with the Russian team knocking Canada out of contention on a competition tiebreaker by the narrowest of margins.
The last of the scheduled games and the composition of the quarterfinals had to wait 90 minutes because of thunder and lightning around Tokyo Stadium. The Russian team needed to avoid losing to New Zealand by more than 33 to have any chance of progressing. New Zealand won 33-0, meaning the Russians got eighth place based on points scored, after the teams couldn’t be split on the regular tiebreakers of point differential and tries scored.
China and the Russian team are playing for the first time in Olympic rugby sevens.
Chen Keyi, who burst into tears of joy when she discovered China had qualified for the quarterfinals with a victory over Japan, expected her team’s following to grow.
The 26-year-old Chen said rugby didn’t have a huge profile in China before the Tokyo Games, but the major broadcasters were televising it now.
“It’s a great impact on rugby in China,” she said.
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