By DR. J. ZIMMERMAN
Rugby made its very successful debut at the Rio 2016 summer Olympics. Overall, there were 62 countries that won Olympic medals. The USA was at the top of the list with 121 medals, and China and Great Britain each had more than 65.
While there were lots of incredible performances and history made multiple times, to me the most interesting story and performance was of the Fijian 7s rugby team.
Fiji has been participating in the Olympics since 1956, but has never won an Olympic medal in any sport. This year, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Fiji won its first medal — a Gold one, to boot — in men’s 7s rugby.
Fiji is a small island nation with a population of just more than 900,000, slightly larger than Jacksonville, Fla. Fiji regularly competes in rugby with nations much larger than itself.
For instance, Fiji beat the USA (population estimated at 360 million) in this summer’s Olympics. It also beat Great Britain in the gold medal match.
It must be noted that Great Britain is allowed to take athletes from three separate countries — England, Scotland and Wales.
This was no small feat for Fiji, whose top athletes come from villages, some of which have no electricity or running water. Some of its top rugby players come from villages where the children have to swim across a river to get to school (holding their school clothes above their heads).
It has been widely reported that Fiji barely has internet availability throughout the country and most of the nation had to watch the Olympic matches in the national stadium, broadcast via closed-circuit television.
Fiji’s best rugby player makes $6,000 per year and can support his family and his parents on that income. Children in a large number of Fijian villages do not have electricity and plumbing, but they idolize the country’s rugby players.
The Fijian Olympic gold medal is one of the most profound achievements that has ever happened in that country, and the Fijian rugby story is one of the best to come out of the 2016 Olympics.
The next best Olympic rugby moment(s) for me concerned the USA women’s rugby team. The U.S. was ranked sixth in the world heading into the Olympics. Its second match was against top-seeded Australia (USA lost its first match to Fiji, 12-7. The U.S. was the favorite and announcers blamed that loss on Olympic-debut nerves.)
In the match against Australia, the U.S. women left all nerves in the locker room and proceded to build a 12-5 lead with less than a minute left in the match. Australia scored a 5-point try with no time on the clock and then kicked the 2-point conversion to tie the match, 12-12.
Bummer for the USA.
In its next match, the United States battled New Zealand. The U.S. played brilliantly and the match was a scoreless tie until the last few minutes, when the Kiwis scored a 5-point try.
The U.S. team tried to fight back, but time expired and it lost the match, 5-0.
In other matches, the U.S. avenged its loss to Fiji, beat France and trounced Columbia.
Other than its opening match (which was later avenged), team USA lost just one match in the Olympics, and by only five points! Not bad for the sixth-ranked team.
As far as the men’s team goes, it did not have as much success. The U.S. did beat Brazil (twice) and Spain, but lost its big matches to Argentina and Fiji (the Fiji loss was a close one, 24-19).
Team USA ended up in ninth place overall.
One of the more interesting stories to come out of the USA men’s rugby Olympics was the Nate Ebner story. Ebner is a two-time Super Bowl Champion with the New England Patriots as a starting special teams player.
The Ohio State University product helped led the Buckeyes to a seventh-place finish in the 2010 Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships before joining the Ohio State football program as a junior. His standout special teams play earned him a scholarship for his senior year, and he was drafted by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
He has been a standout performer on special teams for New England. A high school rugby star, Ebner never played football during his time at Hilliard Davidson High, of Ohio. He went on to play for the USA Rugby U19 and U20 national teams, taking team MVP in the U19 Junior World Championship in 2007 and the U20 Junior World Championship in 2008.
Nate asked the Patriots organization for permission to play rugby in the Olympics, and the organization gave him its blessing.
During one of team USA’s matches, all of the Patriots wore Nate’s rugby number and took time out of practice to watch his match. A great story, and a great Olympic debut for rugby.
Many sports journalists commented on how rugby was their favorite new Olympic sport.
If you didn’t get enough rugby action this summer, NBC Sports Network will officially offer live coverage on Saturdays and Sundays of the Aviva England Professional Rugby Premiership for the 2016-2017 season. Check your local listings for times and schedule and reserve a seat on your couch!
My next column will be devoted to the 2016 fall Jersey Shore Sharks Rugby team. The Sharks’ season kicks off on Sept. 10 with an intersquad scrimmage to determine the starting lineup. The team’s first match is on Sept. 17 in Philadelphia.
Dr. J. Zimmerman is the president of the Jersey Shore Rugby Club Board of Directors. He is the men’s club head coach and director of youth rugby. Dr. J. is also the team chiropractor. For more information on Jersey Shore Sharks Rugby, visit www.JerseyShoreRugby.com or on Facebook at Jersey Shore Rugby Club. Call 609-652-6363, email: Jerseyshoresharks@gmail.com.
By DR. J. ZIMMERMAN