The first Olympic rugby gold medal in 92 years has gone to a group of Australian women that includes a mechanic, an elite former sprinter and a 21-year-old newcomer who has traveled around Rio de Janeiro carrying an inflatable kangaroo.
Australia absorbed an expected early battering from New Zealand and conceded an early try before responding with four consecutive tries to win the women\’s rugby sevens final 24-17 on Monday.
"It was a typical trans-Tasman battle," Australia co-captain Shannon Parry said, referring to the intense sporting rivalry between her country and neighboring New Zealand. "Very excited, very elated with what we\’ve achieved."
The sevens world series-winning Australian women extended their streak to five straight wins against 2013 World Cup winner New Zealand, quite a change in fortune in the broader rugby context.
Australia\’s men\’s team, the Wallabies, have struggled against New Zealand\’s famous All Blacks for more than a decade in the traditional 15-a-side game. The All Blacks have not only retained the Bledisloe Cup, they\’ve also won two World Cups — beating Australia in the final last year.
The women\’s sevens team usurped New Zealand in the rankings, winning the world series for the first time last season. The Australian Rugby Union put them on contracts, set up an academy for sevens and allowed them to train as professional athletes.
"When I started the game, women\’s rugby in Australia wasn\’t very big," Parry said. "It was very much a minority sport.
"To think, eight years down the track, I\’m an Olympian, I play rugby as a full-time job. I just think how far the game has gone."
Rugby is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1924, but in the condensed sevens format and with women competing for the first time. Canada beat Britain 33-10 for bronze, avenging a 22-0 loss the previous day at the end of the pool stage. The United States beat France 19-5, after a come-from-behind 12-7 win over Fiji, to secure fifth place.
The men\’s tournament kicks off Tuesday, with Fiji the favorite for gold.
Each tournament is played across three days and involved 12 teams. The top eight from the pool stage advance to the quarterfinals, and the winners of those matches go into the playoff for medals.
Australia beat Canada 17-5 and New Zealand beat Britain 25-7 in the women\’s semifinals to set up the long-anticipated decider.
It was all going New Zealand\’s way when Kayla McAlister scored the first try, but the Australians rallied with tries from Emma Tonegato and Evania Pelite before halftime.
Tonegato\’s early equalizer was contentious as she crashed over near the corner flag, but referee Alhambra Nievas awarded the try after checking with both assistant referees.
A yellow card for New Zealand star Portia Woodman resulted in a significant momentum swing for the Australians.
Pelite ran on to a long, floating pass from Alicia Quirk and scored out wide on the stroke of halftime, moments after Woodman was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on.
When Ellia Green and Charlotte Caslick scored to lift Australia\’s lead to 24-5, the final was as good as won. New Zealand cut the margin with a second try for McAlister and another for Woodman, her 10th of the tournament.
"It\’s an international fact that New Zealand and Aussie are just really good at competing against each other," Woodman said. "They love it, and rugby\’s in our genes, and we knew they were going to bring it."
She\’s targeting Olympic gold in Tokyo, saying "I\’m not feeling like this again."
Until then, the Australians have gold. Pelite, who has to carry around the boxing kangaroo and place it beside the field for each game because she\’s the youngest member of the touring squad, will probably get to turn over the rookie duties to somebody else.
The Aussies expect to keep the squad together and keep promoting the sport for another generation, meaning co-captain Sharni Williams won\’t have to go back to working as a mechanic — unless she wants to — and Green may stick around as the fastest women in world rugby instead of trying to become an Olympian in track and field.