Brazilian rugby eyes Olympic springboard

Rio de Janeiro - In a country more used to celebrating the footballing feats of Pele, Zico, Ronaldo and Neymar, there are hopes that rugby sevens' Olympic exposure will attract thousands more Brazilians to the oval ball game.

Rugby sevens makes its debut at the Olympics on Saturday when the women's competition kicks off, 92 years after the United States won 15-a-side gold at the 1924 Paris Games.

For international governing body World Rugby and Brazilian rugby administrators, it is a massive opportunity to grow the game in the football-obsessed South American country.

That said, rugby in Brazil can be dated back to 1894 when Charles William Miller, a Brazilian of Anglo-Scottish descent, set up the Sao Paulo Football Club on his return from studies in England.

While football flourished, rugby stagnated, but with its Olympic inclusion has come the call for a "sustainable rugby legacy" via the IMPACT Beyond Rio 2016 programme.

The programme is a collaboration between World Rugby, the Brazilian rugby federation and National Olympic Committee, the City of Rio and Rio 2016, and has already engaged more than 175,000 players, coaches and young match officials in Rio since its launch in March 2015.

"Before a ball has even been kicked at Rio 2016, the effect of the Olympic Games on Brazilian rugby has already been positive," said World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.

"For the past 18 months or so, we have been working hard to ensure that this one-off opportunity to grow the game in Brazil is not lost.

"It is great to see so many young Brazilian people have been introduced to rugby in the build-up to the Olympics and hopefully through the work of the federation they will stay in the game for many years to come and build a lasting legacy."

As hosts, Brazil have the automatic right to have men's and women's teams entered in the sevens competition at the Deodoro Stadium.

That has sparked extra interest in the sport, with a plethora of new clubs being established. The men's 15s team attracted unprecedented 7,000-strong gates for home internationals against Chile and Uruguay in April.

The veteran star of the women's team is Beatriz Futuro Muhlbauer, but she has questioned whether the promotion of rugby post-Olympics would remain a priority in a country bedevilled by political problems.

"There was a boom for women's rugby in Brazil and I was fortunate to be involved at a high performance level, but I am not sure what will happen the day after the Games," she said.

"Our country is facing many troubles and it might happen that sports is no longer a top priority."

Muhlbauer admitted to feeling a mix of "anxiety and pride" about being part of rugby's reintegration into the Olympics.

"Overall, there is a huge sense of responsibility about representing my nation and my sport in the biggest sporting stage of all. That is our motivation."

Daniel Sancery will play alongside twin brother Felipe for the Brazilian men's team, the duo having both cut their teeth at French second division professional side Albi, and he reckoned sevens' inclusion was nothing but positive.

"In Brazil the national sporting fan base is 90 percent football followed in popularity by swimming and volleyball," Sancery said.

"Fifteens isn't well known and rugby sevens even less so. Rugby doesn't figure in the Brazilian culture, but it is developing and it is starting to be shown on national TV channels."

Sancery's London-born teammate Juliano Fiori added: "The fact that it is rugby sevens, and not the 15-man code that has been chosen to be a part of the Olympics is significant - it's a more accessible sport than 15s.

"Rugby sevens is great, dynamic sport and it's very watchable," he said.

"We want to be competitive and put on a good show and give the Brazilian fans something to cheer for."

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