Fiji's emotional Olympic gold lifts a tiny nation

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Jerry Tuwai is a two-time Olympic champion and his Fiji rugby sevens squad has given the people of their Pacific island nation something to celebrate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fiji clinched back-to-back Olympic gold medals with a 27-12 victory over New Zealand on Wednesday in the final at the Tokyo Games.

The government declared a national holiday and the central bank printed $7 notes to commemorate Fiji's gold medal — the country's first Olympic medal of any kind — when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut in 2016.

It's going to be hard to top that.

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Jerry Tuwai of Fiji sings on the podium with his teammates after receiving their gold medals. (Getty)

There'll be time to think about it, though. Tuwai's squad has already been in camp in bio-secure bubbles since the first week of April, starting in the Christian hostel in Suva, where they had to build a gym in the garage to remain in isolation, then in Australia and in Japan. There's still a two-week quarantine when they get home.

The sacrifices from players and staff, their families and their supporters made the Tokyo gold medal more significant than the first one for Tuwai, a father of three.

"It's more special," he said. "We've been away from our family for about five or six months. I think this one is special."

Jerry Tuwai of Team Fiji (right) and Napolioni Bolaca of Team Fiji react on the final whistle following victory in the Rugby Sevens Men's Gold Medal match between New Zealand and Fiji on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Getty)

But there'll be no wild celebrations in the streets across the country this time, for the health and well-being of everyone.

"A gold medal can't replace human life," Tuwai said.

Relative to its population of less than 1 million people, Fiji's outbreak is currently among the worst in the world. Fiji reported a record 1,285 new cases in a daily update on the eve of the Olympic final. It has reported 193 deaths since the outbreak began in April.

Still, Tuwai said the atmosphere would be brighter for a little while at least.

Jerry Tuwai of Team Fiji reacts on the final whistle following victory in the Rugby Sevens Men's Gold Medal match. (Getty)

"It's real love in every home in Fiji. We're well loved," Tuwai said. "I think they'll not be thinking about the pandemic now."

The Fijian squad started singing on the podium when their anthem played. With the medals around their necks, their song turned to hymns.

Rugby is the national sport in both Pacific countries. But rugby sevens means more to the Fijians, who hone their instinctive passing and one-handed offloads in bare-foot games on beaches and in villages across the islands.

"It's hard to underestimate the effect this has in Fiji," head coach Gareth Baber said. "It's something that's obviously closely linked to national identity. Succeeding as a small nation against the odds, against bigger brothers, it's particularly good for Fiji."

Waisea Nacuqu of Team Fiji (right) celebrates victory with Kalione Nasoko of Team Fiji during the Rugby Sevens Men's Gold Medal match between New Zealand and Fiji on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Getty)

The silver was an improvement for the New Zealand men's team after it missed the podium when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

"We trained four or five years for this moment .... we just came up a little short," New Zealand co-captain Tim Mikkelson said, explaining the close team huddle at the end. "It's not easy to make a final of the Olympic Games. For that moment, we just wanted to congratulate each other."

All the rugby sevens medals at the Tokyo Games went to the Southern Hemisphere, with Argentina beating 2016 finalist Britain 17-12 for the bronze. South Africa, the bronze medalist in Rio, beat the United States 28-7 in the playoff for fifth place. Australia beat Canada to finish seventh.

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Meli Derenalagi and Bolaca Napolioni of Fiji with their gold medals following victory in the Men's Rugby Sevens gold medal match between Fiji and New Zealand. (Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Fijians were always in front in the final, just as they were in Rio, scoring three first-half tries to lead 19-12 at the break. When Asaeli Tuivuaka raced over to score in the right corner with about two minutes remaining, another title was assured.

Meli Derenalagi opened the scoring in the second minute in an eerily quiet stadium, unlike the raucous atmosphere in Rio five years ago. Fans are banned because of the pandemic, but there were shouts and yells of encouragement from the bench.

Sireli Maqala made it 12-0 soon after, pouncing on a loose ball that Andrew Knewstubb was unable to ground in-goal.

New Zealand co-captain Scott Curry finished off a wrap-around move and scored in the right corner to make it 12-5, but Jiuta Wainiqolo's bustling sideline run restored Fiji's 12-point buffer approaching halftime.

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Fiji's Waisea Nacuqu celebrates victory. (Getty)

The Fijians were playing with control but conceded after the halftime siren sounded, with Sione Molia stepping through some tired defence to touch down for New Zealand and make it 19-12 at the break.

The New Zealanders stayed within touching distance until Tuivuaka's try put the result beyond doubt.

The classification for 9th-12th was completed in the morning session, with Kenya beating Ireland 22-0 for 9th and 2016 semifinalist Japan finally getting a win to finish off a disappointing campaign at the Tokyo Games — albeit to avoid last place with a 31-19 comeback over arch rival South Korea.

Five years after finishing fourth in Rio, Japan kicked off the Olympic tournament with a narrow loss to Fiji. Winger Lote Tuqiri said the ban on spectators because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the competition draw — Day 1 games against Fiji and Britain — cost the host team.

Spectators cheer on the Fiji players during the gold medal match. (PA Images via Getty Images)

"Seems like we played our final in the first game," he said.

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