Pool B at this year’s Olympics in Rio will feature major contenders New Zealand who face off against France, Spain and Kenya.
After finishing with the the best record at the 2015 Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Championships, France automatically qualified as a result, having accumulated the best points total over the two legs in Kazan and Brive last year.
France were runners-up in the first leg to Russia before then triumphing on home soil, and they’ve followed that up in this year’s Womens Sevens Series by finishing in a respectable fifth place overall, reaching the Cup semi-finals on two occasions in Dubai and Canada only on both occasions to have to settle for fourth place.
David Courteix, the French coach, was fortunate enough to be able to name a settled squad with few surprises, led as ever by the excellent Fanny Horta and including Marjorie Mayans, whose monster hit at the Atlanta Sevens earlier this year went viral.
Could France be one of the surprise teams in the competition? They were only narrowly defeated by pool favourites New Zealand back in the Canada semi-finals earlier this year. One to keep an eye on.
Players to Watch: Camille Grassineau
France’s points machine was both their top try scorer in 2015/2016, with an impressive 16, and also finished with as France’s highest overall scorer with 80 points, enough to finish inside the Series’ top ten. Grassineau frankly has it all – skill, power and pace, making her a major threat in Pool B.
The Lionesses’ qualification for Rio certainly wasn’t an easy ride, after having initially finished as runners-up in the 2015 Rugby Africa Women’s Sevens Championships with only top spot ensuring automatic qualification for the Olympics. That went to winners South Africa, 31-5 winners over Kenya in the final, only for the South Africa Womens side to withdraw from Rio and therefore ensure Kenya advanced in their place.
Another perk of that circumstance was that Kenya avoided having to battle it out in the Final 2016 Women’s Olympic Qualification Tournament in June this year, which was won in Dublin by Pool B team-mates Spain.
Coached by Michael Mulima and Sarah Otieno, Kenya’s single appearance in the Womens Sevens Series this season in Clermont included a tough pool phase with heavy losses to Spain, England and the USA, but they will have taken huge confidence from the experience and also their 12-5 win over Japan to take 11th place.
How much damage the Lionesses can do in Rio remains to be seen, but captain Kate Abilla told Reuters they’ll travel to Brazil full of confidence: “The big teams must watch out for us, because everyone thinks we are the underdogs, but we can make it.”
Players to Watch: Celestine Masinde
Few in the squad are as experienced Masinde, who in her 11th year with the side is getting ready for the biggest moment of her career with the Lionesses. Masinde will be one of Kenya’s proven match-winners in Rio and in a tournament where senior figures will be sorely needed under the global spotlight.
The Black Ferns head to Rio as heavy favourites to top Pool B and as contenders for the gold medal, despite coming second for the first time in the most recent Women’s Sevens Series when they lost out at the top to Australia. What’s surprising is that New Zealand didn’t win a single leg of the five stage Series, finishing as runners-up in the final in Atlanta and Langford.
Putting the 2015/2016 Series to one side, New Zealand have won the previous three Series and head to Rio with huge experience throughout their 12-man squad, which is captained by Sarah Goss and coached by Sean Horan. Not to mention that their frustrations from the Series will all be forgotten if they can win gold.
Winning the 2014/2015 Series ensured that New Zealand qualified automatically for the Olympics and two years prior to that the side were crowned 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens champions after defeating Canada in the final.
Kayla McAlister, sister of former All Black Luke, and Niall Williams, whose brother Sonny Bill will also be at the Olympics, might take plenty of the spotlight due to their famous siblings, but the truth is New Zealand have plenty of threats throughout their squad, which is why they’re being taking seriously as contenders who could add to their Women’s Sevens Series and Rugby World Cup Sevens success.
Players to Watch: Portia Woodman
The third-highest points scorer coming out of the 2015/2016 Series with 120 points, including a tournament-high 24 tries. Woodman is still only 25 but has accumulated close to 600 points in the Women’s Sevens Series in her 97 matches to date. Hugely talented, it runs in the family; her father, Kawhena, and her uncle, Fred Woodman were former All Blacks and her aunt Te Aroha Keenan is a former Silver Fern.
The 12th and final team to qualify for the Olympics, after their triumph at the 2016 Women’s Rugby Sevens Final Olympic Qualification Tournament in Dublin last month. Spain topped their group with three wins out of three before knocking off China and Kazakhstan en route to the final where they defeated Russia.
Ever since their stunning win over New Zealand in 2015, we’ve learned to not write Spain off. That being said, New Zealand and France will be tougher opponents this time around in Rio.
Having qualified as a core team for the 2015/2016 Series, Spain finished in ninth place, the lowest of the nine core sides, with their best finish coming in Langford where they finished as runners-up in the Plate competition (effectively sixth place overall). The core of their squad from across the five legs of the Series will all be in Rio after being selected by coach José Antonio Barrio, with Elisabet Martinez once again captaining the group.
In a rarity for the competition, the majority of the Spanish squad are over the age of 30, ensuring plenty of experience.
Players to Watch: Patricia García
Spain might not actually be at the Olympics were it not for the efforts of García, whose try double in the final against Russia ensured Las Leonas advanced to Rio. Capable of producing magical moments out of nothing, Spain’s number one playmaker has a major role to play if the side are to cause a shock in Brazil.