By the end of Sunday, we will know the identity of the fourth and final team to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games via the women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023.
Ireland, Fiji and Great Britain head into the final tournament of the Series in Toulouse separated by just four points as they bid to join New Zealand, Australia, the USA and hosts France in Paris.
For much of the season it looked as though Ireland would book their ticket to a first ever Olympic Games with something to spare.
However, back-to-back eighth-place finishes in Vancouver and Hong Kong have left the door ajar for the two sides immediately beneath them in the standings.
Fiji start this weekend’s tournament only two points behind Ireland on 62 points, while Great Britain – who beat Fijiana Sevens in the bronze final in Hong Kong to win a first Series medal – have 60.
With Fiji and Great Britain drawn alongside each other in Pool B and Ireland facing the daunting prospect of playing both Australia and France on day one, it means any one of the three teams could end Sunday in possession of that golden ticket to Paris.
Unsurprisingly, given the variables at play in rugby sevens, the players involved are focused only on the things they can control, their performance.
“The Series forgives no one”
For Great Britain’s Heather Cowell, just being involved in the Olympic shake-up at this stage is proof of a promising debut season on the Series for the team.
“Olympic qualification is not something we ever really discussed as a group as being an option from the World Series,” Cowell told World Rugby.
“We were obviously very aware that we can qualify through Europe. But we never really discussed the World Series route purely because at the beginning of the season, we were a new group, we were coming together and we were playing against teams who have been formed for many, many years and who are very much at the top of their game.
“So, we were under no illusion, the World Series forgives no one. No matter what team you are it's a ruthless place to be and if you don't perform, then you won't get the result.
“So, I think we came in with no expectation, bar looking at ourselves and how we can just keep building as opposed to looking at the results. I think for us to even be in a position where qualification is possible is really exciting.
“If we can qualify, great but as a group we've decided that we will not put any pressure on it this weekend. We're just going to go out and do what we have done in the other six tournaments, which is focus on us.”
Great Britain will play Fiji in their final pool match on Saturday, the teams’ ninth meeting in the 2023 Series.
The bronze final win in Hong Kong last month was Great Britain’s fifth victory in the fixture in that time but Cowell and her team-mates know they cannot afford to look past their assignments against Japan and Spain on day one if they want to top Pool B.
“There’s no point putting all our focus onto Fiji if we don’t win the first two games,” Cowell added.
“It’s game by game [but] obviously the Fiji game is huge for us. It puts us in the best position possible in terms of the seedings for the quarter-finals.
“So, we'll obviously take it to them as much as we can, but we know that coming off the back of Hong Kong, we took the bronze medal off them and they've yet to win a medal as well this season, so they'll be looking to get their own back.”
Ireland target best performance
An hour or so after Fiji and Great Britain meet on Saturday, Ireland will round off their Pool C campaign against Brazil at Stade Ernest-Wallon.
However, the Irish squad will be aware that it is likely to be their results against hosts France and Australia on day one that will have the biggest baring on their ability to hold onto the fourth and final qualifying spot.
“It’s important we didn’t get side tracked by what’s at stake,” Ireland winger Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe said.
“We all know the target is Olympic qualification but for us the focus must remain on the process this week and ensuring we produce our best performance of the season.
“While there is a lot riding on the outcome in Toulouse, we know it is not the be-all and end-all as we still have two more potential routes for Olympic qualification, but the Series offers the first and that’s our big target this week.
“We are in a good place and have put in some good work over the last couple of weeks to go out and fight for every inch.”