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‘Rugby sevens is soft?!’ – Aussie hockey great pilloried in Rio for his comments over women’s Olympic gold

Ric Charlesworth says Olympic competition was easy to win and hockey is much harder, but he’s lost the plot

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 7:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 12:28am

After clean ball from a line-out, the scrum half fed to a back line and the ball was skillfully passed through several hands before the winger smashed into a wall of defenders and was brought down with a crunching tackle.

From the ruck, the ball was recycled to set up the next phase of attack. There was nothing soft about it. It was sevens rugby played according to the book, it was fast and brutal and it was executed by women.

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Australia won the women’s rugby gold medal, beating New Zealand in the final, but it wasn’t enough to impress Ric Charlesworth, a legendary figure in Australian hockey both as a player and a coach.

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Charlesworth is of the opinion that their gold medal was “soft”, unlike, of course, any medal won in hockey in his mind.

“I’m delighted we won in rugby sevens, but that’s a soft event at the moment,” he was quoted as saying. “I don’t think they had a try scored against them well into the competition, so some events are much easier than others.

“I think the women’s rugby sevens is a soft event whereas the men’s is much more competitive and gives a country like Fiji a chance at the Olympics, and that’s wonderful.

“I think hockey is as hard as any of the team games you play; basketball is similar, where you have to play for two weeks, day after day,” he said.

“You can win five or six games and end up with nothing and that is tough. I played in a bunch of teams that were undefeated until the semi-finals – that can happen, it’s a hard medal to win, you have to slog it out day after day.”

Naturally, the 64-year-old was pilloried and deserved to be.

Probably his greatest mistake was his choice of words – “soft” in a game in which its exponents pride themselves on being “hard”.

What the stick man was probably trying to relate was that it was an easy tournament to win for the Australian women because the competition, especially in the earlier rounds, was easy in his opinion.

But even if this was his beef, he is wrong on both counts.

First, any Olympic medal must be earned. The final, which Australia won 24-17, was far from easy after a tough 17-5 win over Canada in the semi-finals and a difficult pool game against the US.

How often do the top men’s teams such as Fiji canter to convincing pool victories without conceding tries?

To say one person or team dominates an event because their rivals are weak is one of the most ridiculous statements in sport. One can only compete against what your contemporaries throw at you and if someone is that much faster, higher and stronger than the rest, it is because of their special qualities at that particular time and not lesser opposition.

If that is the case, then all of Usain Bolt’s Olympic gold medals are “soft”.

Great athletes who dominated like no other, such as 400m hurdler Ed Moses, squash player Jahangir Khan and golf’s Tiger Woods, took their sport to a different level because they were so much better and the rest had no choice but to catch up.

Certainly, women’s rugby at the highest level has reached a stage in which the skills, tactics and execution can provide fans with as much satisfaction as that of the men’s game.

Nick Sero, of USA Rugby, scoffed at suggestions that the women’s rugby competition at the Olympics was soft.

“Honestly, those three days of competition was some of the best rugby I’ve seen, men or women, period,” said Sero. “Especially the US team, with the Australia and New Zealand games, it could have gone either way.

“They played with so much passion and heart. There’s absolutely nothing soft about any of those games, they are hard as nails, so I totally disagree with that.”

The Americans drew 12-12 with gold medallists Australia in a pool match – countering Charlesworth’s claim that the Aussies had it easy in the early rounds – and lost 5-0 to runners-up New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

Elenosa Baselala, a photographer with the Fiji Times newspaper, laughed off Charlesworth’s efforts at belittling the Australian gold.

“Rugby is rugby, it is a physical game and this is the Olympics,” she said. “There is no such thing as a soft medal.

“A gold medal is a gold medal and I think [what he said] is an insult to a group of women who have trained hard and worked hard to come to the Olympics.

“Anyone who has watched the women’s sevens rugby here would say it was just as good as the men. It was very physical and tactical and there was great phase play.

“In my point of view, rugby is harder than hockey.”