New Zealand’s Black Ferns 7s have gone from strength to strength after their Rio 2016 silver medal and Tokyo 2020 spoke with captain Sarah Hirini about what has shaped them into the force they are
Losing in an Olympic gold medal match is a heart breaking experience for any team. Being so close yet so far is something New Zealand’s most-capped sevens player Sarah Hirini (née Goss) knows all too well.
The final of the women’s rugby sevens on 8 August 2016 was a fierce and closely fought battle between long-time rivals New Zealand and Australia with the latter clinching gold in a 24-17 win.
“I suppose we had in our minds, and our expectation was to go there win gold, come home as champions and unfortunately, it didn't end up like that and for a number of different reasons," Hirini explained.
However, from that experience came important changes for the Black Ferns side which has seen them re-capture their success and one which they hope to show on the biggest stage at Tokyo 2020 next year.
Lessons from Rio
The Rio 2016 Games marked a significant milestone in the history of rugby at the Olympics – it was the first time the discipline of sevens had been added to the Games programme.
The Black Ferns 7s headed into the Games as one of the favourites; after all, New Zealand is considered one, if not the best, at the game of rugby. The team itself had won three of the four World Rugby Sevens Series titles and were the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup.
Expectations were high, not just from the team and its players but from the New Zealand public to win gold.
And everything was seemingly falling into place. Heading into the 2016 Olympic Games, the preparation from the team was second to none. They had participated in heat simulation training in Florida and the players were also hitting fitness testing goals.
"I thought we were in a really good position," Hirini said.
New Zealand headed into the gold medal match undefeated, scoring 139 points and conceding just 19 across five games. So, when the final whistle blew, and when Australia started celebrating their victory, it was tough for the team.
“It's the expectation that we had on ourselves [to win gold], that's what the expectation New Zealand had on us and, and sometimes things just don't go to plan and that's what happened,” Hirini said.
“So, it's completely changed our minds for the girls who were around [at Rio] because we don't want those same mistakes to pop up next year."
After returning home from Brazil and as preparations began for the upcoming season, the players alongside their management team - which featured both new faces and ones from their Rio 2016 campaign - created a new vision that would take them through to the 2020 Olympic Games.
“A lot of that was based around our culture and to be able to be a successful team that travels overseas quite a lot, you have to have a good culture that one works really hard, but also create an environment where everyone buys into what the team is about,” Hirini said.
“It's also about having fun as well because you can kind of get caught up on just doing the training and not really living as a squad. But in Sevens it's really important that we are pretty much a family.
“It is a pretty big shift from Rio to now, it's completely different and it's definitely enjoyable to be in the environment and I think that's why we've had so much success over the last four years."
Everything but a gold medal
The Black Ferns 7’s has won it all: six of eight Rugby World Sevens Series titles, two of three Rugby Sevens World Cups and Commonwealth Games gold. However, there is one thing they have yet to win.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't the one thing that I really wanted,” Hirini said when asked about wanting to win Olympic gold.
“For most of us that's the goal and to have that postponed was really disheartening but for myself, that's all we think about - winning gold and bringing home gold for New Zealand."
But after the experiences of being at the Olympics four years ago, Hirini is also looking forward to enjoying the environment the Games bring.
“The biggest thing that I took from the 2016 Olympics was just being a part of that wider New Zealand team and that's probably what made the Games for me.”
“Sometimes you can either get caught up in the Games too much or you don't actually get to enjoy the fun side of it"
“So that's goal other than playing, it’s actually experiencing how epic the Olympic Games are and I'm sure Tokyo will put out a show next year for us.”
Doing it for New Zealand
Wearing a ‘Black’ jersey - whether that be for the Black Ferns or All Blacks - is a special feeling.
It’s one many young rugby players dream of being able to do one day to have been able to do that at an Olympic Games, was extra special for Hirini.
“We're lucky in the Sevens environment that we actually get the last name on the back of our jersey so it's more special,” she said. “When you put it on it feels like you've got all these superpowers and you're just backed by so many people so it's a really special feeling.”
One of the unexpected moments, and one that Hirini labels as a turning point for herself, was that the New Zealand fans were going to back the team no matter what.
"The amount of support that we got from the New Zealand public... we never really quite expected that they would still be extremely supportive of what we had achieved," she said.
"It seems that they'll still back us no matter what and for me, it gives you more drive to want to do them extra proud the next time.
"I think that was probably a big goal of ours going into the Commonwealth Games and playing Australia in their own backyard... we wanted to not rectify the Olympics because I don't think it was about that, but just show the New Zealand public how good we were."
2016 Getty Images
Lacing up the boots again
After recently returning to international duty from a leg injury which side-lined her for the remaining two rounds of 2019, Hirini is itching to play again. Thankfully with restrictions eased in New Zealand, rugby along with other sports were all given the green light to commence.
"It's massive for us to go back and play but also just to be able to play some footy which we haven't done since January this year," she said.
Hirini is set to take to the field with the Manawatū Cyclones for this year’s Farah Palmer Cup. The 13-team competition, which is set to get underway on 22 August, will feature a host of New Zealand internationals including 15 players from the Sevens team.
For the 27-year-old, it marks her return to the Cyclones after debuting in 2011 and playing 13 games over three seasons before international commitments made her unavailable.
The last time the Black Ferns 7s were on the field together was at the Sydney 7s at the beginning of February before the season came to an abrupt halt in March.
"I miss just being able to play and I am missing being around the girls,” Hirini said.
“We're a centralised programme so [we’re] normally training with each other five to six days a week. Now we actually haven't been together since lockdown, which was over three months ago so it's been pretty crazy."
Since speaking with Hirini, New Zealand was awarded the 2019-20 Sevens Series title after World Rugby cancelled the remainder of the season.