Chris Brown sounded keen to return to the dressing room and admonish his players, which felt a little incongruous since his team had just won their second match of the day and secured safe passage into the knockout rounds.
But this women’s Olympic rugby sevens tournament is a big opportunity for the United States and their head coach had detected some sloppiness in the 17-7 win over Japan.
“We got the result, we’re through to the quarters which is great, but pretty frustrated [with] the performance we just put out there against a pretty average Japan side,” Brown said. “There’ll be a few words said right now.”
One word on a lot of lips is “momentum”. The pandemic was a momentum-killer for the women’s Eagles Sevens, who won a silver medal at the 2019 Pan American Games and took second place in the 2018-19 World Series. Here – they hope – is where they really get going again.
The US, who finished fifth in Rio when the sport made its Olympic debut, beat China 28-14 in their opening encounter and will face highly-rated Australia in their final Group C game on Friday.
“Two years ago the men’s and women’s sides went to number two in the world, you know? Now there’s very few people I meet that don’t know the game,” said Brown. “Now they’re excited to watch so we need to put a performance out there that people are excited to get into. I’m sure we’ll bounce back tomorrow.”
As sevens seeks to dig its heels into the sporting landscape in its second Olympics, progress in the snack-sized version of rugby is measured not only in medals but in television ratings and other markers of an expanding fanbase and growing participation.
“I definitely think the exposure that we’re getting just now is very, very, important for the continuation of rugby sevens,” said Euan Mackintosh, China’s head coach, who hails from Scotland. “It’s growing so much, particularly the women’s game. Since Rio, it’s boomed. If this [Olympics] hadn’t taken place I think it could have hit a few of the sevens programmes pretty hard.”
Japanese rugby has been on the rise, with their neutral-seducing 34-32 win over South Africa (and a victory over the US) in the 2015 Rugby World Cup in the XV-a-side game followed by victories over Ireland and Scotland on home turf four years later. But it is a terrible thing to watch a Brave Blossom wilt in the summer heat.
In sevens, the men finished fourth in Rio. Yet here they slumped to the bottom of their group, losing to Canada, Great Britain and Fiji, who retained their title by beating New Zealand in the final on Wednesday. The women opened their campaign with a 48-0 loss to Australia. The decline is especially jarring given the outstanding medal success Japan is enjoying in other sports so far in Tokyo.
But we live in weird times. “Everybody’s had their own journey since Covid hit,” said Mackintosh. “There’ll be a huge variety of different training environments and what restrictions they’ve had. Then, looking at the men’s tournament and how things went there, you end up with New Zealand and Fiji – so it’s obviously not affected too many things because that wasn’t a shock, to see those two teams in the final.”
Nearly 46,000 fans were in a rocking Tokyo Stadium two years ago to see Japan crush Russia 30-10 in the opening game of the Rugby World Cup. Playing in a near-silent stadium must be uniquely demoralising for the hosts, knowing what might have been. Brown, though, is keenly aware of his audience back home. The arena is empty, he said, but “TVs are full, put it that way”.