Rugby-mad New Zealand celebrated their men’s and women’s sevens teams winning the world titles on Sunday in Moscow, but no-one was taking Olympic gold medals in Rio for granted.
The All Blacks Sevens beat rugby heavyweights England 33-0 in their final to clinch their first world title since 2001, while the women’s team beat Canada 29-12 to win their first.
The dual victory means that New Zealand now hold the men’s and women’s World Cups for both formats, along with the sevens’ world series titles earlier this year.
With the abbreviated form of the game due to make its debut at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the New Zealand Rugby Union and High Performance Sport New Zealand have poured resources into both programs in an attempt to win both gold medals on offer.
The men’s program has long been at the top of the game, winning 11 of the 14 world series circuits, though the gap is narrowing with teams like Kenya and the US all capable of causing upsets.
Kenya, who have made massive strides, finished fourth in the World Cup, while New Zealand needed a late David Raikuna try to beat the US in the pool phase in Moscow.
“The days of when it was us and Fiji dominating are over,” sevens captain, Eric Rush said before the tournament began.
“I don’t think it deserved to be in the Olympics because there were only two teams that could win it,” he said. “Now there at least five or six who could win and that is what you want and teams like Kenya, on their day, they’ll win the gold medal if you’re not careful.”
It is the women’s game, however, that has made the largest strides in reducing the gaps between teams, with the US beating Spain 10-5 in the playoff for third shortly before Sean Horan’s team beat Canada in the final.
Canada had only made the semi-finals after Ghislaine Landry scored a try with 13 seconds remaining to beat Russia 15-12 in the quarter-finals, where Spain had upset 2009 world champions Australia 14-10.
Despite New Zealand clinching both titles at the World Cup, Horan said the tournament was merely a stepping stone towards Rio.
“We still have a long way to go,” he said. “It’s like climbing Everest, but we’re not even at base camp yet. We’re still walking through the villages saying hello to the kids.”
New Zealand implemented a talent identification program early last year that produced the group of players that won the World Cup, which has been emulated by other countries with less pedigree in rugby, but bigger Olympic budgets.
As part of the program, Horan cast a wide net before he selected his final squad, drawing on players with varied sporting backgrounds with top-level netball players Kayla McAlister and Portia Woodman both scoring tries in the final.
However, he had only dipped his toes into the talent pool of players available, he said, and he said the side to contest the next women’s world series could be different from that which won the title.
“We are leaving girls behind who have strong development potential. We are leaving injured players behind, but it’s not about this World Cup or Rio,” he said. “It’s about the game itself and what we want to do.”
“We want to be world leaders and want to reach for Everest,” Horan said.