Rugby gold: Australia edge New Zealand to Olympic title in Rio

We revisit the Olympic Games women’s sevens tournament final from Rio 2016, which Australia won to create history.

It was not only Australian and New Zealand players who were celebrating following the semi-finals of the Olympic Games women’s sevens tournament in Rio.

Once those matches had been completed, Mark Egan, World Rugby’s Head of Competitions and Performance, called a meeting where it was announced that Alhambra Nievas would referee the final.

For the Spaniard, who had officiated the ninth-place play-off between Brazil and Japan earlier on 8 August, 2016, it was the culmination of her own Olympic dream.

Nievas had put her engineering career on hold to become a full-time referee, and had been rewarded for the gamble. In four hours she would take the whistle for the biggest match in women’s sevens.

“It was really special, especially all the support and how the team congratulated me in that moment,” Nievas told World Rugby. 

“It was great. I didn't feel really nervous, to be honest. I was more emotional for half an hour, an hour. I took my time to be a little bit quiet alone and just calm down and refocus for the final. 

“Because at the end, my main goal was to referee another game and try to get [rid of] this pressure of thinking 'oh this is the Olympic final'. 

“So, I'm refereeing another game. I just referee what is in front of me. That was my mental approach to refereeing the final.”

Pre-match preparation

As the gold-medal match drew ever closer, the Australian squad began to go through their own pre-match rituals. 

But when the players returned from their pre-match warm-up, they found their changing room in total darkness.

“We just thought the Brazilian electricity had gone out,” Australia back Alicia Lucas revealed on a recent episode of Between the Lines.

“But our coach, Tim Walsh, had obviously turned off the lights and he had our Rio candle burning in the middle of the room. 

“And we’d had this candle burning every meeting for over a year, and it was like a symbol of the Olympic flame and the fire and the smell of Rio is what he was trying to create. Because we’d obviously had it for a year before, it was trying to normalise the situation and everything like that. 

“Whereas we all just walked in and were like, ‘what the hell are you doing, Walshy? That’s so weird’.”

Once the lights had been turned back on, the Australians finalised their preparation for the final to the sound of musician James Bay’s ‘Hold Back The River’, before heading out to the Deodoro Stadium pitch.

Both teams posed for photos alongside Nievas and her team of officials, comprising assistant referees Rasta Rasivhenge and James Bolabiu, and in-goal judges Sakurako Kawasaki and Alexandra Pratt.

Nievas had extra reason to celebrate. As Rio is five hours behind Spain, the 7pm kick-off meant that her 33rd birthday was starting back home as Tyla Nathan-Wong got the final underway.

“Not a bad present,” she admitted. “You feel proud of yourself, of what you have done in the past, not only during the tournament, in all the years before the Olympics where we prepared ourselves as best as possible to make sure that during the Olympics we make the best decisions for the game.”

Going for gold

The opening five minutes of the match were played exclusively in the Australian half, with New Zealand capitalising on their dominance to score through Kayla McAlister.

“We were really quite woeful at the start, New Zealand had us under the pump,” Lucas recalled. 

“But we finally got the ball in our hands and really got to show off everything that we’d put into the last four years.”

Australia scored following their first period of possession, as Emma Tonegato won the race to the line. Nievas and her team, though, were asked to make a call on the grounding.

“As a team of three we decided that it was a try,” Nievas explained. “We made a decision in that moment. We didn't have any TMO, so we made a decision on the field, and we cannot have any regrets because at the end, we are there to make those big decisions.”

The scales tipped in Australia’s favour on the stroke of half-time as Portia Woodman knocked on a Lucas pass deliberately and was shown an inevitable yellow card.

“Before I took the card [out] and showed it to her, she was running out of the pitch, because she knew it,” Nievas said. “The players at this level, they know when they make that kind of foul.” 

Evania Pelite would score Australia’s second try before the break, and Ellia Green would add a third before Woodman was able to return to the action.

‘One of the best feelings ever’

New Zealand now trailed 17-5 with just over six minutes remaining, but following a Woodman knock-on at the restart, which invited pressure, it was Australia who would score next. The ever-impressive Charlotte Caslick darting over from a quick-tap five metres out.

The Black Ferns Sevens rallied and crossed the whitewash twice late on, through McAlister again and Woodman. But it was too little too late, and Woodman collapsed in a heap of emotion having scored the match’s final try with no time left on the clock.

"The fact that I did that one knock-on, that one little thing that cost us two tries, it really got to me," she told reporters afterwards. "The feeling of letting my team down, that's what got me most."

By contrast the feeling for Lucas and her team-mates was one of jubilation. “It was one of the best feelings ever,” she said. 

“I’d told every single human being that I know that I was going to the Olympics to win a gold medal. So stoked that we came through on that result because otherwise I would have been the biggest liar. 

“So, I was relieved for that reason and then just ecstatic and happy that we’d achieved what we wanted to achieve.”

Nievas and her team also allowed themselves a moment to mark the occasion. “We are very conscious that we serve the game and we don't want any focus,” she said. 

“But we needed to enjoy that moment because at the end we worked really hard to be there and, yeah we celebrated. And the thing was it was a very special day. 

“They took one of the balls from the final and they all signed it for me, and they had beautiful speeches after the game. Yes, we celebrated together not only because of the final, because at the end of it, the final, only one person can take it and a lot of people work for that.”

READ MORE: Commentator Rikki Swannell picks seven women who helped change the face of rugby sevens

Last updated: Jul 15, 2020, 1:55:45 PM
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