In less than 24 hours the first whistle will blow on what should be a stunning three days of rugby sevens at the Commonwealth Games 2022.
Since sevens made its debut as a men’s Commonwealth Games event in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 only two teams, New Zealand and South Africa, have finished on top of the podium.
Four years ago in Gold Coast, meanwhile, the inaugural women’s tournament was won in dramatic circumstances by the Black Ferns Sevens.
The quality of the 24 men’s and women’s teams that have arrived at Coventry Stadium for this weekend’s tournaments would suggest that there could be a new gold medallist come Sunday.
Back-to-back Olympic gold medallists Fiji and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series contenders Australia will be among the teams pushing defending champions New Zealand and current Series leaders South Africa in the men’s tournament.
Australia’s women succumbed to a late Kelly Brazier try in the Commonwealth Games 2018 final and will want to go one step further in Coventry, having won the 2022 Series. Olympic bronze medallists Fiji, England and Canada will be among the chasing pack, meanwhile.
It all means this year’s Commonwealth Games could be the most keenly contested yet, providing a real showcase of world-class rugby sevens. Certainly, commentator Rikki Swannell could not be more excited for kick-off.
“It’s going to be cool,” Swannell told World Rugby. “As a New Zealander it's something that I grew up watching, I remember when we hosted the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990.
“These multi-sport Games are always something really cool to be a part of and I guess we're lucky in sevens that it's such a strong sport within the Commonwealth.
“So, we know we're going to have a really cracking tournament this weekend in a good rugby stadium with people who will be very knowledgeable watching on as well.”
Swannell, who earlier this year became the first female lead commentator on the men’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, will be part of the commentary team at Coventry Stadium.
The New Zealander has fond memories of watching sevens at the Games, delighting in reminiscing about the first All Blacks Sevens team to win gold in 1998, which included Jonah Lomu, Eric Rush and Christian Cullen in a star-studded squad.
“That New Zealand team in 1998 was absolutely stacked,” she said. “It was a wonderful, wonderful side full of some of the greatest names to play the sport, whichever version of it.”
Having recently written a book about the Black Ferns Sevens’ surge to Olympic gold in Tokyo last year, Swannell knows the pressure her countrywomen will be under to repeat the trick at the Commonwealth Games.
New Zealand returned to the women’s Series for the final two tournaments of 2022, in Langford and Toulouse, and reached both finals, although Australia beat them in the first of those.
“There’s just so much expectation on this team now every time that they play,” Swannell said.
“I mean, there's always expectation on New Zealand rugby teams, but their record means that everybody at home is very aware of who they are, what they're doing and expects them to win.
“And perhaps they don't follow the World Series as closely, so maybe [they don’t] necessarily know how strong Australia have been this season, and how good the likes of Fiji have become.”
Fijiana set to rival Australia and New Zealand
On the back of their bronze medal performance in Tokyo and with two second-place finishes on the 2022 Series, Swannell has backed Fijiana to push New Zealand and Australia in the women’s tournament.
“I don’t think we can discount Fiji. This is a huge opportunity for them,” she explained.
“In any match, on any day, they can beat New Zealand and Australia, they just haven't been able to close out the games as yet. Obviously, we saw that in the Tokyo semi-final [against the Black Ferns Sevens].
“Australia and New Zealand are still the two hot favourites [but] Fiji are not far behind, nipping at the heels.”
Swannell expects Australia and New Zealand to challenge in the men’s tournament too, along with current men’s Series leaders South Africa, but it is the strength in depth of the Fiji squad that has caught her attention.
“I’ve just been doing some of my notes and I've been doing the Fiji team and it actually makes you weep, how much talent they've got. It's unbelievable!” she said.
“When you think of who they haven't been able to pick and who they've been able to bring back into their squad, [Aminiasi] Tuimaba's coming back in.
“They’d be the envy of everyone, it's unbelievable. So, I think they have to be massive favourites.”
Claiming a first Commonwealth Games gold medal is sure to be a huge motivating factor for Fiji’s men’s and women’s teams, but their competitors will not be short of incentive either.
Australia and South Africa, like Fiji, will hope a run in the men’s tournament will help their bid for the Series title at the final event in Los Angeles next month.
Thirteen of the men’s teams and six of the women’s teams, meanwhile, will head to Cape Town in September to compete in Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022.
“There’s a lot of rugby, isn’t there? It’s great!” Swannell joked. “It’s going to be a real test of squad depth, coaches and their tactics.”