Great Britain have won the European Games, and with it a place at the Olympics in Paris in 2024.
International sevens player, referee and coach Liat Geller reviews the a weekend for of surprises and interest at the first sevens tournament to be staged at these international games.
The beautiful thing about the Olympics, is that it allows the everyday athlete to dream about rubbing shoulders with the giants of our sport. While you could argue that in some Olympic disciplines this simply cannot happen – you cannot qualify to the Olympics unless you train full time as a professional athlete, Rugby is without a doubt, the exception.
Case in point – the Olympic qualifiers which took place these last couple of days as part of the European Games. Tournament favourites GB, along with Spain, are the only two fully professional teams. You’d think this would have given them a clear advantage when entering this (almost) do or die tournament. And you’d be only half right.
Come the Qualifiers. GB, again, had three easy games versus three amateur sides – Italy (where 7s is very much second to their 15s team), Czechia (had a great first EC round and a very good showing in the world series qualifiers) and Norway, who were still smarting from a tough weekend in the European first Trophy round, where they finished a disappointing 11th. Spain had Romania (finished last in the championship) Belgium (their biggest test of the pool stage) and Sweden (ranked 11th in the championship). GB, as planned, tore through the tournament, making it to the semi-final having only conceded one try. Spain – same, but unfortunately, and in what is one of the biggest upsets in Rugby history (!), dropped their Quarter-final game to Czechia – who were in control of the match from start to finish. Spain looked absolutely lost, and to the astonishment of all, an amateur side kicked a fully professional team out of Olympic contention.
The Semi-final pitched GB v Belgium. Belgium had a flying start and scored early – but then the game stopped for more than an hour with the most bizarre event – a sign flew over posts and blocked them. When the game resumed Belgium actually took the lead again, but following the half time break GB’s superior game, physicality and experience broke Belgium.
On the flip side, Poland, who was marked early on as one of the three sides that will either get the Olympic qualification or the repechage spot, did their work, powering through Czechia who gave them a bit of a fight, but then seem to have conceded the game, reserving their strength for the bronze medal match.
Elsewhere, and quite surprisingly, all the ranking games took place. Another big upset was noted when Norway, who will be fighting to retain their trophy position next weekend, beat Turkey, who will most likely go up to Championship. This should give Norway a huge boost of confidence (as should an earlier game they had against Czechia where they terrorized the higher ranked team). Turkey, a very fast and quick side will come out of this tournament with a bundle of experience – very much needed for this young, naïve side.
Italy – not a traditional 7s side – had a fantastic tournament, and of note is Germany who seem to have got their groove back over the last year and are playing some of the best rugby they’ve played in quite a while.
Coming back to the last two games – Belgium, on paper and in boots, had a vastly experienced size, older, and showed they’re capable of bringing spectacular rugby in the world series qualifier. Czechia – well, they had a terrific tournament and this is the moment they prepared for. The very much younger side came onto the pitch and – must like they did against Spain – put a tremendous amount of pressure on Belgium. A brace of tries from the magnificent Cecile Blondiau was not enough, and remarkable, unexpectedly, Czechia ended up with the invitation to the World Rugby Olympic repechage tournament.
Onto the final. Poland had everybody in the stadium dreaming about an upset. Everybody except GB and their supporters, that is. The game started with a defensive blitz by Poland, pushing GB all the way to their own try line – but that was the biggest play of the day from the hosts. The rest of the game was in control of GB. Plays that would have resulted in a try against any other team, crashed against the GB defensive wall over and over again. GB did their due diligence, prepared well for this game – and walked off with an Olympic spot. Poland, as expected, now have a full season to prepare for the Olympic repechage, and darn if they aren’t the favourites to win it!
So, what now? Spain will go back and fight for their place in the world series. One must wonder what kind of investment their union will put in, if any. Belgium will most likely see a change of the guard with the veteran servants of the game stepping away.
And as for World Rugby and Rugby Europe, there must be better planning for the next cycle. This tournament was based off of last year’s rankings, which saw the Ukraine, out of competition last year and winners of the first trophy round, denied a chance at Olympic participation, whereas Norway, delightful as they were, ranked 24th heading into the European Games.
The whole format and schedule should be looked at. Sticking the European championships around the Games created a crazy load on participating teams and potentially gave the teams excluded a better shot for the second round with more recovery time. Additionally, while playing in the European Games created a great atmosphere and Olympic vibe, it’s a title that lost its meaning – maybe there’s a better way of planning this?
The next big meet for these sides is the second round of the Championship and the Trophy. No big changes to be expected for the two Trophy squads, but with the Championship, it’s really impossible to know and could throw the championship wide open. To be seen!
Pool A: Czechia 28-5 Italy; Great Britain 55-0 Norway; Czechia 31-0 Norway; Great Britain 36-5 Italy; Italy 57-0 Norway; Great Britain 37-5 Czechia
Pool B: Germany 17-19 Portugal; Poland 50-0 Turkey; Germany 31-5 Turkey; Poland 26-0 Portugal; Portugal 36-5 Turkey; Poland 43-7 Germany
Pool C: Belgium 40-0 Sweden; Spain 41-0 Romania; Belgium 39-0 Romania; Spain 36-0 Sweden; Sweden 12-19 Romania; Spain 29-7 Belgium
9th-12th Place Semi-Finals Romania 33-0 Norway; Sweden 10-7 Turkey
Quarter-Finals: Great Britain 53-0 Germany; Poland 33-15 Italy; Spain 12-17 Czechia; Portugal 5-22 Belgium
11th Place: Norway 10-5 Turkey
9th Place: Romania 5-25 Sweden
5th-8th Place Semi Final Germany 22-7 Portugal
5th-8th Place Semi Final Italy 0-38 Spain
Semi-Final Great Britain 36-12 Belgium
Semi-Final Poland 29-7 Czechia
7th Place: Portugal 7-34 Italy
5th Place: Germany 5-26 Spain
3rd Place: Belgium 17-24 Czechia
Final: Great Britain 33-0 Poland