Australia makes rugby sevens history with defeat of New Zealand

Story highlights

Australia wins the first gold medal in rugby sevens history

It beat New Zealand; Canada took the bronze

The men's competition begins Tuesday

Rio de Janeiro CNN  — 

It’s not often Richie McCaw is reduced to a sideshow at a rugby stadium.

As rugby sevens’ first Olympic final was played Monday, the legendary New Zealand captain was a spectator at the Deodoro Stadium in northern Rio de Janeiro. He watched his countrywomen suffer an historic defeat to their Australian arch rivals in the gold-medal match.

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“You just look at all the people here and this part of the world probably doesn’t see a lot of rugby,” the retired two-time Rugby World Cup winner told CNN before watching his country lose the final 24-17.

Australia's Evania Pelite scores a try against New Zealand.

Sevens is a reduced version of the 15-a-side game in which McCaw was a star. Instead of being played over 80 minutes, matches are split into two seven-minute halves that are often high-scoring and frenetic. The gold medal match is played over 20 minutes.

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Although the 15-player version of the sport appeared at the Olympics between 1900 and 1924, sevens was only voted into the Games in 2009 and Monday’s first medal matches, with the men’s final to follow Thursday, marked the end of a seven-year journey.

“We’re so excited to be here at the Olympics,” World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper told CNN. “It’s been a long wait, but we’ve been planning since 2009 and it’s just spectacular to be here.”

And now sevens has its first Olympic champions, one of whom is Shannon Parry.

“It’s incredible, to be honest. We’ve worked very hard for this,” she told reporters. “This tournament shows the growth of women’s rugby.”

That popularity has not just given Parry a gold medal – it’s also given her an opportunity to make a living playing the sport she loves.

“When I started playing the game, women’s rugby in Australia wasn’t very big,” the 26-year-old said. “It was very much a minority sport and to think, eight years down the track, I’m now an Olympian. I play rugby full time, as a full-time job and a full-time profession.

“I just think of how far the game has gone, but then I also look to the future and think of what other future opportunities we’ll have.”

“The future of women’s rugby in Australia is very bright,” Parry added.

When Huriana Manuel first picked up a rugby ball back in New Zealand, becoming an Olympian was an impossible dream.

But the sport’s ascension into the Olympic program has given sevens players an opportunity to parade their skills on sport’s grandest stage, even if the rugby-mad nation of New Zealand came up just short.

“It feels amazing representing my country,” the 30-year-old said after Monday’s semifinal win over England. “We’re in the black jersey wherever we are. But obviously the Olympics is the pinnacle of all sports, so it’s a huge honor.”

Trying to build on interest

While it was an historic day for the sport, the empty stands in the Deodoro Stadium suggested that sevens wasn’t quite winning over the Rio locals.

“I think we’re getting reasonable crowds, we’d like to see a few more people here,” admits Gosper, who will have been heartened to see a significantly larger crowd for the final. “We’re hearing anecdotally that on television they’re loving to see the broadcast and so on.”

Australia's Ellia Green lifts up a teammate as they celebrate a gold medal win.

One of the issues faced by sevens is the Deodoro venue’s location in the north of the city, with most visitors facing train journeys and a long walk from the nearest station to reach the arena, which perhaps explains the modest attendances for Monday’s early ties.

But ahead of the men’s competition starting Tuesday, Gosper remains optimistic. Speaking ahead of the medal matches, he revealed that sevens elected to spread its program over six days in the hope of building momentum and interest.

The men and women each play six matches over three days here, but Sevens World Series tournaments take place over a weekend.

“We’ve been running at about 60% I’d say, at best,” he said of attendances after Monday’s semifinals. “We’re hoping to move that up this afternoon to 75% with the final and the final games, then the men’s start tomorrow.”

What the crowd lacked in numbers it made up for in variety, with rugby fans from across the world making the trip to Brazil.

New Zealanders, Australians, Americans, Britons and Canadians are all present in healthy numbers, as well as some Fijians.

Canadians and Brits were in full voice for the bronze playoff, which Canada won convincingly 33-10.

“To have it here and being played is huge,” said McCaw, reflecting on the significance of rugby sevens returning to the Olympics. “And if you think about the people all around the world that are going to get to watch it, maybe for the first time, I think they’ll quite enjoy it. So it’ll be pretty cool.”

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Asked whether he wished he was out on the field, McCaw replied: “Not really, I’m quite enjoying being a spectator to be honest.”

That was before he had to watch Australia collect the gold medal.