Get ready to rumble: rugby returns to Olympics in Rio, and what you need to know

Things to watch at Rio, where the women’s tournament runs from August 6-8 and the men’s from August 9-11 at the Deodoro Stadium.

Sonny Bill Williams, right, has accumulated a wealth of experience and success playing different codes for New Zealand and will feature at the Olympics this year. Rob Griffith / AP Photo
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Rugby is returning to the Olympics for the first time in 92 years, bringing the ruck, the maul and the hooker back into the lexicon of the Summer Games.

The format has changed, considerably, since the United States won the last rugby union Olympic gold medal in 1924, with the abbreviated seven-player version favoured for Rio over the traditional 15-a-side game, and Fiji favoured for a breakthrough triumph. The aim remains the same: score more tries – grounding the ball in the opponent’s in-goal area – and you are a good chance of winning.

It is fast and physical, with more emphasis on speed and passing the ball – always backward – than heavy contact, and it is typically played in two seven-minute halves.

Here are some things to watch at Rio, where the women’s tournament runs from August 6-8 and the men’s from August 9-11 at the Deodoro Stadium.

FLYING FIJIANS Fiji have never won an Olympic medal, but they have never had a chance to play their national sport at the Summer Games. The world series champions are favourites in the men's competition, and expectations are high in the Pacific.

Englishman Ben Ryan took a squad containing an abundance of players with size, speed and natural flair for rugby sevens, and he added extra discipline to every facet of the preparation from diet to drills. The result is a still entertaining, but more consistent Fiji team.

“It’s the national sport, so our best athletes play rugby,” Ryan says. “We have been successful at it and that’s also created this aura around the team, the way we play, totally different to every other side in the world. It’s a risky, entertaining, exciting, slightly laid back – sometimes – way of playing the game. And we are doing it to a very high level.”

POINT PROVED The sevens format has surged in popularity since its inclusion on the Olympic programme, and the rewards are being spread more widely than ever. Countries such as Kenya and the United States have won titles on the world series circuit, and are ranked sixth and seventh behind southern hemisphere powers Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. American Madison Hughes led the world series with 331 points in the 2015/16 season. American speedster Perry Baker was second behind South Africa's Seabelo Senatla for most tries scored and most line breaks.

GO BRO Sonny Bill Williams is a high-profile game-hopper likely to feature for New Zealand at Rio, another notch in a career that has involved switching back and forth from rugby league to rugby union to win some of the biggest prizes in those sports. Already a World Cup-winner with the famous All Blacks, Williams wants to add Olympic gold. He probably will not have to look far for family support, with his sister Niall figuring in selection calculations for the title-chasing New Zealand women's team.

WOMEN'S DRAW Australia won the women's world series, reaching the final in four of the five tournaments to outpoint second-placed New Zealand, the dominant team in 2014/15. Canada and England were equal on points in third place.

The women’s squads at Rio will feature players lured from sports such as basketball, volleyball and track and field. As it catches on, there will be more professionals and increased competition.

“New Zealand had been the benchmark ever since I had started playing rugby. Everything we trained for and played for can subconsciously be aimed around beating them,” Australia’s Alicia Quirk said. “But this series turned out to be the most competitive season yet – the gap between teams has definitely closed.”

SPANISH ACQUISITION Spain were the last of 12 teams to qualify in each of the men's and women's tournaments. The Spanish men had a stunning upset win over world series regulars Samoa in the last-ditch repechage, a victory which playmaker Patricia Garcia said inspired her women's team to its victory over Russia in Dublin the following week.

USEFUL TERMS Ruck, maul, scrum – all physical contests for the ball. Hooker, prop, wing – all playing positions.

FORMAT Each competition will feature 12 teams divided into three pools, with the top eight advancing to the quarter-finals. US teams got tough draws: the men were grouped with Fiji, Argentina and Brazil, and the women were grouped with Australia, Fiji and Colombia.

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