It’s hard to know whether IRB Sevens tournaments are more about the party than the rugby but with Olympic medals on offer in 2016, sevens is becoming serious business. USA is the reigning Olympic rugby champion, having beaten France in the final in Paris in 1924. The bronze medal was won by Romania, with only the three countries participating. Not long after rugby was removed from the Olympic programme. When it returns in Rio, it will be in the form of sevens, with events for both men and women.
The IRB and national unions are investing heavily in sevens and the gap between the traditional powerhouses and the others is narrowing. At the Wellington round of the IRB series, Fiji failed to qualify for quarter-finals of the cup for the first time and New Zealand was beaten by Kenya at the semi-final stage. England went on to win the tournament as the England Women also did at their tournament in Houston. At the weekend the sevens carnival moved to Las Vegas where ‘normal’ order was restored with South Africa beating New Zealand in the final. In the thirteen years of the IRB Sevens series New Zealand have won the championship on ten occasions with Samoa, Fiji and South Africa securing one win each. Kenya, Argentina and Australia are now capable of beating anybody on their day, while France, Scotland and Wales have also had their moments in recent tournaments. Spain and Portugal have now gained entry into the sevens series, demonstrating the growth in popularity of the sport.
Highlights from the Las Vegas Sevens Tournament
The Rugby Sevens World Cup in June will be held in Moscow. 24 men’s and 16 women’s teams will compete in what is likely to be the last Rugby sevens World Cup. The IRB has previously stated that if sevens were to be included in the Olympic Games that the World Cup would be scrapped, so that the Olympics would be the pinnacle for rugby sevens in a four year cycle. While this has yet to be confirmed it seems a likely outcome. There has been much discussion of the likelihood of sevens medal winners in Rio coming from countries not previously associated with the game but with the resources to develop quickly. While this may prove to be the case it’s hard to imagine that the established teams won’t be standing on the podium at the end of the competition. Not only do they have the experience and skills required for the game, they may also have available players from the fifteen man game who, post the RWC in 2015, may chose to pursue Olympic glory by switching codes.
The NZRU have indicated that 15’s players who want to compete in Rio will have to dedicate themselves to sevens for 2016, thereby missing out on Super Rugby and All Blacks test matches for the season. Presumably if they fail to make the sevens squad they will then return to their franchises. The prospect of facing Cory Jane, Sonny Bill Williams (were he to return to the fold) and Julian Savea in sevens would be daunting for their opponents.
The qualification process for the Olympics has yet to be finalised but the IRB have indicated that Brazil as hosts will gain automatic qualification in both the men’s and women’s competitions. It’s also likely that the top four from the IRB Series from 2014/15 will automatically qualify. Thereafter, regional qualifying competitions are expected to determine the remaining teams for Rio.
England, Scotland and Wales all compete in the IRB series in their own right but subject to qualification will compete in Rio under the banner of Team GB. Ireland’s rugby team is selected from players both north and south of the border but for the purposes of the Olympics athletes from Ulster compete as part of Team GB. There is the curious possibility of a player such as Craig Gilroy playing sevens against teammates from the Irish rugby side. The selection of that team might test the diplomatic skills of all concerned.
While many details about the Olympic sevens competitions are yet to be finalised, it’s still an exciting prospect. The involvement of Brazil, Russia, and China in sevens can only be a positive for rugby. For the public, IRB Sevens tournaments in places like Wellington, Vegas and Hong Kong will continue to be more about the party than the rugby but for the players it has never been more serious. Full time contracts are on offer for some but the possibility of an Olympic gold medal will ensure that the quality of rugby played on the circuit will only improve and rugby will surely benefit from the global exposure that Olympic participation guarantees.
Are you a Sevens player, coach or fan? How do you see the Olympics changing the game over the next 3 years?