Fiji defended their Olympic rugby sevens title with an entertaining 27-12 victory over New Zealand at the Tokyo Stadium on Wednesday.
The elated Fijians burst into a cappella hymns that boomed around the stadium to celebrate just the second ever Olympic medal for the nation of 890,000 people scattered around more than 330 Pacific islands.
Fiji skipper Jerry Tuwai said there had been “a lot of expectation. Every Fijian wants only the win. It’s a good day for Fiji today”.
“They won’t be thinking about the pandemic now, they’ll be celebrating the gold medal!”
Fiji’s Welsh coach Gareth Baber hailed the “resilience of the group dealing with whatever has been thrown our way” after spending five months away from their families as coronavirus restrictions took hold throughout Oceania.
“It’s been a really strange year, particularly the last six months,” Baber said. “We were locked down in Fiji, then we went to Australia where we were in quarantine.
“It takes a special kind of person to make that commitment,” the former scrum-half said, joking that there had been almost daily references to the win in the Rio Olympics, when Fiji were coached by Englishman Ben Ryan.
The Fijians, superbly marshalled by the omnipresent Tuwai, were quick to pile the pressure on New Zealand, a robust defence the cornerstone of their all-encompassing game.
They took the lead when a smart offload after Maqala stripped Joe Webber of the ball found Meli Derenalagi, who stretched his large frame to cross in the corner.
When an under-pressure Andrew Knewstubb failed to ground a tentative grubber over the Kiwi line, Maqala was on hand to pounce on the loose ball for a second try converted by Napolioni Bolaca.
But Scott Curry, instrumental to New Zealand’s run to the final, showed a surprising turn of pace to run one back in for the men in black, who have 12 sevens world series titles to their name.
Credit to Fiji
Fiji fired straight back, the jinking Jiuta Wainiqolo riding a Knewstubb tackle and swerving away to race in for the Islanders’ third try, Bolaca hitting the extras.
Sione Molia clawed one back for New Zealand to keep them in the game, doing well to battle his way out of an attempted Tuwai wrap-around and skip away, Fiji up 19-12 at half-time.
The second half, however, was all Fiji. Molia was hand to produce a try-saving tackle under relentless pressure.
But befitting a team who play rugby sevens, according to coach Baber, as uniquely as Australian cricketers of the 1990s and the vaunted Brazilian football team of the 1970s, the ball was swiftly and confidently moved to the other wing for Asaeli Tuivuaka to dot down for a simple, decisive try.
A late penalty in the Kiwi 22m area saw Fiji opt to run down time to the hooter, Waisea Naqulu hitting a penalty for the final word in front of empty stands at a baking Tokyo Stadium.
New Zealand’s Curry added: “It’s pretty disappointing to take it this far and not to win. We went into that game with a lot of confidence that we could get gold.
“We had our opportunities out there. Credit to Fiji, they took theirs, and we didn’t.”
Fiji had run out 26-14 semi-final winners over Argentina, while New Zealand outmuscled Britain 29-7 in the other last-four clash. In the bronze medal match, Argentina beat Britain 17-12.
The third-place play-off opened at a rip-roaring pace, Ben Harris crossing within 40 seconds for Britain before Argentina scrum-half Lautaro Bazan Velez responded with a cheeky snip down the blindside.
One of the tournament’s standout players, Marcos Moneta — a Youth Olympic Games gold medallist — added a second and his sixth of the tournament, with Santiago Mare converting to make it 12-7 at half-time.
Ollie Lindsay-Hague and Ignacio Mendy then swapped scores before British captain Dan Libby was caught in possession and the whistle was blown, leaving Los Pumas in delight.
Moneta, 21, called the bronze-medal showing “a dream come true. It was what were looking for, to get on the podium”.
“We are really happy to get the bronze medal.”