Vinicius and Tom Olympic and Paralympic mascots (Getty Images)
Rio de Janeiro - Ever since rugby was approved for the Olympic
sports program in Rio, Fijians have believed their sevens team will win their
first ever medal at the Summer Games.
It just might not be the team they expected.
The Fiji women's team, unsung and largely overshadowed by the
world series champion men's team, produced the only upset on day one at the Rio
de Janeiro Olympics to be on the verge of making the quarterfinals.
Fijiana, as the team is known, upended the United States 12-7 in
their opening game. And even though they were then smashed by gold medal-favourite
Australia 36-0, they should beat winless Colombia on Sunday to secure a playoff
"We won't talk too much about (a medal), but that's obviously
deep inside and, if we can achieve that for Fiji, we'll be stoked," said
forward Rebecca Tavo, a former Australia captain who switched to Fiji last year
to help them qualify for Rio.
Fijiana barely rated a mention before the Olympic tournament,
understandable after fading to eighth place following a promising start to the
women's world sevens series.
But back home, they got fitter and better by combining their camp
with the men's team, winner of the last two world series. Inspired and
motivated by the men, the women changed their diet and training plans. Out went
carbohydrates and fatty, local staples such as cassava and dalo, and in came
lean meats and salads. Add that to running up and down the Sigatoka sand dunes,
and "you could see the girls' bodies changed a lot," Tavo said.
Having upgraded their fitness, they fine-tuned for the Olympics
together with the men's squad again in Santiago, Chile, where many of the women
touched snow for the first time, during a bus trip up the Andes.
"Our preparation was a dream," Tavo said.
The Fijians turned their opening match into a nightmare for the
Americans, who had won seven of their nine previous matchups. Watched by IOC
president Thomas Bach, a guest of World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, and in
balmy 33-degree (90 F) temperatures, Luisa Tisolo pulled off a show-and-go and
Fiji led 7-0 at halftime.
A turnover from a big tackle saw Timaima Ravisa sprint clear for
12-0. The U.S. cut the gap to five with four minutes to go, but Fijiana's
tackling was fierce, and one last hit by Lavenia Tinai snuffed out the American
"One of our hallmarks is our aggression," Tavo said.
"You can tell our girls, 'Fijianas, have no fear.'"
Chris Cracknell, the former England captain who became Fiji's
women's coach a year ago, saw good and bad in the game.
"They can emulate what the boys do, in their own right they
can do some spectacular things," Cracknell said. "Defensively, when
we're abrasive, we get ourselves into the game, but we let the U.S. back into
it. We started chasing tackles because we were enjoying it so much."
Their success will boost efforts in Fiji to attract more female
players. Already, World Rugby's Get Into Rugby program, plus the Pacific in
Union venture, a partnership between Oceania Rugby, the Australian Rugby Union
and the Australian government, have drawn about 20,000 players each, but
there's plenty of room for more growth, Fiji Rugby Union women's development
officer Vela Naucukidi told the Fiji Sun.
The FRU is also researching through the University of the South
Pacific the barriers and motivations for women playing rugby in Fiji's
male-dominated society. They have already learned female rugby players are seen
as smart, confident, and brave, but elders are worried about the safety and
well-being of girls.
"Fijiana are trailblazers," FRU development manager Sale
Sorovaki told the Fiji Sun. "They started playing rugby when not many
other women did, and they made their way to compete in the Olympics. We honor
their effort and we want to make it much easier for the next group of women who
are coming through."
Thanks to qualifying for the Olympics last November, the Fiji
women's squad became contracted in March to the FRU for the first time. Five of
this team have been playing rugby for less than a year.
"They're pretty amazing, just the connection they have,"
U.S. forward Kathryn Johnson said. "They're really wonderful girls as it
is, on and off the field. It's fun just to be on the field with them."