One Year To Go: Looking ahead to Tokyo 2020

As the countdown to the Tokyo Olympic Games begins in earnest, we take a look at the frontrunners, the most-improved teams and those set to make their debut.

On 23 July, 2021 the curtain will come up on the Tokyo Olympic Games, and following an enthralling debut in Rio four years ago, sevens is set to take centre stage.

Rugby World Cup 2019 highlighted the growing popularity of the game in Japan, with a record-breaking cumulative domestic television audience of 425 million and the creation of more than one million new rugby participants through the Impact Beyond programme.

Last week, the schedule for both the men’s and women’s tournaments was confirmed. And with Tokyo Stadium set to provide an iconic setting for rugby once again, sevens tickets are anticipated to be among the most in-demand at the Games.

As the countdown to the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 begins in earnest, and with 21 of 24 competing nations confirmed, we take a look at the frontrunners, the most-improved teams and those set to make their Games debut.

SEE DETAILS ON TOKYO 2020 OLYMPIC QUALIFICATION HERE >>

Frontrunners

Some of the names may have changed but Fiji’s men remain well placed to add to the maiden Olympic medal they won in such stunning style in Rio. No team has won more World Series events than Fiji (12) in the intervening four years. Although they were third in the standings when the COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to the 2020 season, Sevuloni Mocenacagi produced arguably the standout moment of the campaign with an outrageous scoring pass for Jerry Tuwai in Los Angeles.

New Zealand topped the abbreviated standings in 2020, winning their first World Series title since 2014. Veteran forward Tim Mikkelson continues to lead by example, and was ably supported by the likes of Regan Ware, Andrew Knewstubb and Caleb Clarke as the All Blacks Sevens won in Cape Town, Hamilton and Vancouver.

South Africa, second in 2020, will also fancy their chances in Tokyo having won World Series titles in 2016/17 and 2018. This season, the Blitzboks won in Dubai and LA, where captain Stedman Gans excelled. 

Australia’s recruitment drive for female sevens players in the early part of the 2010s was rewarded with gold in Rio. And the squad that defeated New Zealand at Deodoro Stadium is still making an impact on the World Series. Ellia Green, Sharni Williams and Emma Tonegato all ranked in the top 10 for points scored, while the latter and Alicia Lucas were among the most prolific tacklers. Australia have reached 11 World Series Cup finals since Rio, but — largely due to New Zealand — only won two of those, and have not lifted a Cup title since February 2018.

The Black Ferns Sevens have undoubtedly been the form team on the World Series since sevens’ Olympic debut. New Zealand have won 16 Cup titles out of a possible 22, with Stacey Fluhler, Tyla Nathan-Wong and Kelly Brazier among the team’s top performers. Portia Woodman, meanwhile, is set to make her comeback from injury in this year’s Farah Palmer Cup and with the emergence of Jazmin Hotham, the future looks rosy.

Canada reached three Cup finals during the 2020 Series, and a squad that contains a good mix of youth and experience had been confident of securing a podium place in Tokyo before the Games were postponed.

Most improved

Prior to Rio 2016, USA’s men had never finished higher than sixth on the World Series. That changed in 2017, when they came fifth and a period of steady improvement culminated in a title challenge in 2019. Wingers Carlin Isles and Perry Baker both passed the 200-try mark during 2020. 

Another men’s team on the rise in recent seasons, albeit one that is yet to book their place in Tokyo, has been France. Les Bleus, who will compete in the Olympic Games Repechage, reached a World Series final for the first time in six years at the HSBC Canada Sevens 2019, and repeated the feat in Hong Kong. In 2020, they came third in Cape Town and — powered by the tries of Tavite Veredamu — were losing finalists in Hamilton.

Only four teams have tasted women’s Cup final success on the World Series since the curtain came down on the action at Deodoro Stadium. In that time, the USA — who finished fifth in Rio — have won as many titles (two) as Australia and Canada. Alev Kelter topped the 2020 Series point-scoring chart, following a season that started with victory in the team’s home event in Glendale.

Fiji, who were beaten by the USA in the fifth-place semi-final at Rio 2016, notched their best World Series finish in 2016/17, when the team came fourth behind New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Fijiana endured a couple of lean years following that, but were back putting pressure on the Cup contenders in 2020, when they ended the truncated campaign seventh. Only four players made more clean breaks than Ana Maria Naimasi in 2020.

Newcomers

Canada and Korea will both make their debut in the men’s tournament at Tokyo 2020. The Canadians have been ever-present on the World Series since Rio 2016, and the team won its maiden title at the HSBC Singapore Sevens in 2017. In the most recent event on the World Series, the HSBC Canada Sevens 2020, Nathan Hirayama scored 43 points as the hosts secured a third-place finish.

Korea, meanwhile, booked their spot in Tokyo with a nerve-shredding defeat of Hong Kong at the Asia Rugby Olympic qualifier. The Koreans have appeared at three World Series events since Rio 2016, taking vital lessons from each tournament. Last month, Andre Jin picked out Chang Yongheung and Jang Jeongmin as players to watch next summer.

Of the 10 women’s teams to have confirmed their place at Tokyo 2020, China are the only debutants. Coached by Sean Horan, who led New Zealand to a silver medal in Rio, China booked their ticket with a win over Hong Kong on home soil. The Chinese were a core team on the 2019 Series, and secured a best-ever finish of seventh at the HSBC France Women’s Sevens last June.

The identity of the final two nations will be decided at the Olympic Games Repechage, where 10 potential debutants — Argentina, Mexico, Jamaica, Russia, Madagascar, Tunisia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan — will compete against Colombia and France.

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

Last updated: Jul 22, 2020 4:48:13 PM
Photo of Jess Breach scoring a try for England against Ireland in the Women's Six Nations Championship 2020
Women's Rugby World Cup News Women in Rugby women-news-2021 RWC2021
Jess Breach: England winger has eyes set on Rugby World Cup 2021
England and Harlequins Women winger Jess Breach chats to World Rugby about her hopes for Rugby World Cup 2021.
WRWC 2017 semi-final: New Zealand v USA
Women's Rugby World Cup News Tournament News Women in Rugby women-news-2021
10 of the greatest women’s Rugby World Cup tries
With Rugby World Cup 2021 set to kick off in less than 12 months’ time, we take a look at 10 of the best tries ever to be scored at the tournament.
Women's Rugby World Cup trophy
Women's Rugby World Cup News Tournament News Women in Rugby mz-advisory women-news-2021 Women-news-coach RWC2021
Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching interns confirmed as part of one year to go celebrations
All nine Rugby World Cup 2021 qualified teams to avail of Coaching Internship Programme opportunity.
One Year To Go Image
Women's Rugby World Cup News Tournament News Women in Rugby mz-advisory women-news-2021 RWC2021
Black Ferns to play opening Rugby World Cup 2021 match at Eden Park
Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand celebrates the one year to go milestone.
WRWC 2017: Final - England v New Zealand
Women's Rugby World Cup News Tournament News Women in Rugby women-news-2021 RWC2021
Rugby World Cup: The story so far
World Rugby takes a stroll down memory lane to look back at the eight previous women’s editions of Rugby World Cup.
Photo of England DRU v Wales DRU
Men's News Women in Rugby
10 things deaf rugby players want you to know about their sport
We caught-up with players and administrators from the England Deaf Rugby set-up to bust the myths around the sport, from why players sometimes play on past the whistle to how the front row knows when to engage.
Rugby United, Cologne, Germany
Junior Feature News Women in Rugby women-news-regions
Rugby United helps refugee children in Germany rebuild their lives
World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby partner, Rugby United, has been helping the physical and mental wellbeing of refugee children in Germany for the past four years.
Fiao'o Fammausili and Selica Winiata celebrate winning Rugby World Cup 2017
Women's Rugby World Cup News Tournament News Women in Rugby women-news-2021
One year to go: Rugby World Cup 2021 gives New Zealand opportunity to inspire
Farah Palmer, Melissa Ruscoe, Selica Winiata and Rachael Burford look ahead to next September’s tournament, and discuss the impact RWC 2021 could have on New Zealand and beyond.
HSBC Canada Women's Sevens 2019
Women's Sevens News Tournament News Women in Rugby Women-news-sevens
From sevens to 15s: The likely stars of New Zealand 2021
We profile seven stars of the sevens circuit ready to make an impact at Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.
Kirby Sefo playing for Queensland
Women's News Women in Rugby women-news-power
Kirby Sefo drawing on her own adversity to inspire young women
The former Wallaroo has created Subbed, a programme which uses rugby to encourage young women to talk about social issues including mental health and sexuality.