Great Britain were so far ahead that, just for a moment, Tyla Nathan-Wong struggled to remember the score – “21-0 down, or however it was,” the New Zealand player said afterwards. That is exactly how it was, as three tries in the first four-and-a-half minutes gave Great Britain an improbably large lead against the world’s top women’s sevens team.
But in this rugby format a lot can happen in a little time, and the Black Ferns bit back with three tries from Michaela Blyde and one from Nathan-Wong. The winning try came with less than 30 seconds remaining as Britain, reduced to six players after Jasmine Joyce’s yellow card, were narrowly unable to cling on and record a surprise victory that looked within their clutches after early tries by Helena Rowland, Megan Jones and Joyce.
Still, the overriding emotion for Scott Forrest, the GB head coach, was pride after the 26-21 defeat. “There’s a reason they’re the best team in the world. They showed that there, they find a way to win, they’ve been together for a long time and I think you saw that there,” he said. “The pleasing thing for us was the way we approached the game. There’s a lot of confidence in this group though obviously we’ve only been together for a short time.”
Despite the outcome, it was a more encouraging performance than the one Britain mustered in their opening women’s Group A game earlier in the day, when they squeezed past the Russian Olympic Committee team, 14-12, needing a late try from Abbie Brown. Next up on Friday are Kenya, who lost 29-7 to New Zealand in their opener. Fiji retained their men’s title, beating New Zealand a day earlier.
Britain’s tournament preparations were hampered by funding cuts, but they appear to be growing in confidence and cohesion. “I think New Zealand are the best team in the world at the moment and we absolutely rattled them in the first half,” Joyce said. “We just slipped off a bit in the second half but medals aren’t won on day one. We’ve got day two and day three to absolutely put our wrongs right.”
New Zealand knocked Great Britain out of the Olympics in the semi-finals five years ago before losing in the final to Australia, who are likely to provide their stiffest competition again in Japan.
“We’re buzzing that we managed to stay in the fight, I don’t think anyone’s come close to New Zealand for a long time in terms of challenging them and really pushing them like that,” said Natasha Hunt. “We know that we’re in their heads, in the nicest possible way.”