By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Fijian men's sevens rugby team gave the Rio Games one of its enduring images when they came together to belt out a few hymns after winning their nation's first Olympic gold medal and the Pacific islanders will not give up their title easily in Tokyo.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily disrupted preparation for the second Olympic tournament but the Fijians, along with perennial sevens power New Zealand, will be co-favourites for the men's title in Japan.
It is often said that Fijians could have been tailor-made for the game of rugby and that is all the more the case in sevens, where their free-running and physicality are not constrained by the more technical aspects of the 15-aside game.
The Flying Fijians looked in fine shape when they returned to international action after a gap of 15 months at the Oceania Sevens in Townsville in late June, going unbeaten and downing New Zealand 17-7 in the final.
"We are in a good spot," said coach Gareth Baber. "We have been ordinary at times but we scored a good bag of tries which is what we are always after.
"We've still got a little bit of more work to do physically and keeping ourselves with that mental battle we get in the game, but overall it has been a good outing."
New Zealand have spent five long years brooding over their Olympic disappointment in failing to win one of the Rio golds and a response in Tokyo is guaranteed.
When sevens was introduced to the Olympics, it was considered a real possibility that the country would monopolise the gold medals in the same way the United States has in basketball.
But that script was torn up in Rio.
The All Blacks suffered a stunning loss to Japan in the pool stage and flopped out in the semi-finals, while the Black Ferns were stunned in the women's final by a brilliant performance from Australia.
The Black Ferns went unbeaten at the Oceania Sevens last weekend, outclassing the opposition in Townsville with try-machines Michaela Blyde and Portia Woodman showing why New Zealand will be strong favourites to make amends in Tokyo.
"Our biggest thing is inner belief and players going out an expressing themselves," said Black Ferns co-coach Cory Sweeney.
"By the end of the tournament, they were in a good flow and the girls were happy with good energy, which is a great outcome for us."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)