From the moment the International Olympic Committee Session voted in favour of the inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games, after a successful case was presented by the IRB’s bid team in 2009, the road to Rio for the Sevens game was mapped out.
For many years Rugby Sevens has been bubbling under the surface, enjoying a gradual increase in popularity as fans all over the world become accustomed to the energy, fast pace and camaraderie that emanates from the Sevens experience. Now, for the first time since 1924, Sevens is to be part of the Olympic lineup, a move that will undoubtedly see interest in the sport rocket, the profiles of players rise and a greater number of regions invest in rugby for the first time.
But as the countdown to Rio begins, it quickly becomes clear that there are a number of challenges, which need to be addressed before Team GB can consider the prospect of adding another medal to its tally.
Qualification and collaboration
Achieving the right combination of players from the home nations will not be a simple task. Ben Ryan and Russell Earnshaw, England Sevens coaches, have been widely commended for bringing the English game into the position it finds itself in today, third in the World Series this year and with the top two try-scoring players in the world series, in the form of Mat Turner and Dan Norton, in its midst. Add to this the fact that the RFU is the only union to fund a full-time Sevens programme and the case for a dominant English presence in the Team GB lineup is strengthened still.
But the talent amongst the Scottish and Welsh Sevens squads is not to be underestimated. The WRU, in particular, has produced and developed a great deal of talent on the Sevens circuit over the past few years, albeit much of which has since digressed into the fifteens game, but nonetheless, the talent and backroom set up is there.
The long-standing British Lions format should also serve as a source of optimism to suggest that home nations collaboration is achievable. The Lions deep-rooted history in the fifteens game should help to pave the way for the creation of a Team GB squad represented in some way by each of the British nations.
The Northern Ireland dilemma
Should Northern Ireland create and prepare an independent squad for Rio? More to the point, does it boast a wide enough pool of players from which to produce a side capable of competing against some of the most established Sevens sides in the world? We have heard Ulster winger Tommy Bowe’s name thrown around continually since this debate was first raised but, born in County Monaghan, Bowe is not of Northern Irish origin and so (should he elect to make the leap over from the fifteens game) it would seem Team GB would be his target.
Superstars v Super Sevens
There is a clear argument for introducing a select number of fifteen players into the Team GB Sevens side.
London 2012 has created a new generation of British sporting heroes. The success of athletes like Ennis, Farah, Higgins and Hoy has helped to establish and drive lucrative sponsorships deals, introduce new disciplines to wider audiences and populate the international central news agenda. Continuing this legacy away from London will be a challenge, but handing players (who are virtually unknown to the general public) the task of sparking national interest in a new sport, could be an even greater one. High profile, headline-hitting international fifteens players, however, would seem better placed to create a level of interest to rival that which we have seen across each of the Olympic venues this year.
But Rugby Sevens has already grown into a hugely popular spectator sport, with the best players in the world attracting sell-out crowds in major venues worldwide. This magnet has existed for some time now and the notion that Britain needs to call upon ‘big name’ fifteens players, simply because the Sevens game is being taken to the Olympic platform, is an uncomfortable one. We have an impressive list of Sevens players who have already proven that they have just what it takes to turn their sport into one which is recognised far and wide, and they did so without the help of any fifteens superstars.
Danny Care (England), Tom Croft (England), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Dave Denton (Scotland), Ben Foden (England), Dave Strettle (England), Lloyd Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)….the list of players whose routes involve exposure to the Sevens game goes on and on. But today, the game of Sevens is worlds apart from that of fifteens. Players themselves are recognising that the two games are moving further and further away from each other and while regulations have been put in place to permit players to be released for Team GB duties, it seems unlikely that many will make the move.
For those international players who do elect to move over to Sevens, their availability to prepare for Rio would not begin until October after the World Cup 2015. Add to this the challenge of switching to what can now be described as an entirely different ball game, and the likelihood of players jumping ship to enjoy Olympic status is even lower.
What it all comes down to…
Rugby Sevens embodies the Olympic ideal: energy, excitement and team spirit. The goal here should be to create a Team GB which upholds these core values. In order to achieve this, we should be reviewing the potential of players from each of our home nations but, more importantly, we should be allowing existing Sevens players, without invasion from their fifteens counterparts, to do what they do best – play the game that they have introduced us to, and play it well.