by Mike Petri
BBC Rugby published an article, Test stars will find it hard to play Olympic sevens, that references the use of 15s players in the upcoming 2016 Olympic games in Rio. Different people have different thoughts and opinions on the subject and the question, therefore, becomes what is the best strategy in creating a team with the best opportunity to win an Olympic medal in rugby 7s?
The Olympics is a dream event for every athlete. Even if their sport isn't in the Olympics, it is both understood and accepted that the Olympics represent the paramount of elite competition. Its history and significance is unparalleled and most athletes (and even coaches) would give anything for a chance to win a gold medal for their country. This raises an interesting issue in the rugby world, where the Olympics are not only somewhat of a recent novelty in our sport but also involve a very specific format of the game. Will some of the 15s players switch codes to 7s for a chance at Olympic glory? Will they even make a significant impact? Or is 7s such a unique sport that it should be left to those athletes that have been consistently competing on the global circuit and training as 7s athletes? It is a welcomed luxury for coaches to suddenly have access to an entirely new pool of high caliber players but it certainly doesn't make their selection job any easier.
Sir Clive Woodward is one of the world's most respect rugby minds. He was a World Cup winning coach for England in 2003 and has an incredibly impressive resume that includes being head coach of a Lions tour and a spot in the IRB Hall of Fame. As primarily a 15s man, he believes that many players will make the switch across codes and that it will beneficial to the team's performance. Alternatively, England 7s coach, Ben Ryan, believes that his players are unique and would be ready to compete and excel if other big name, professional 15s stars tried to make the jump.
Think of it this way - is New Zealand better off fielding the likes of guys like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, or Israel Dagg in their effort to achieve Olympic glory? Would the addition of these types of players pretty much guarantee at least a spot on the medal stand? Or should they stick with what's been working for them so far on the circuit? They are, after all, defending champions of the IRB 7s World Series for the past two consecutive seasons as well as defending gold medal winners at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Many, if not all, of their current 7s players would likely be considered 7s specialists and have made New Zealand consistently one of the top teams on the circuit. (This is different from our athletes here in America, where there has traditionally been more frequent crossover between codes.)
I believe that 7s is a unique game and that the athletes that play it more consistently will likely always have the upper hand. They have that 7s mentality and instinct that is often different from strategy employed in 15s. Nonetheless, the world's big name players do have an incredible amount to offer, even if it is only to challenge and push those already in the 7s system. They bring a whole new level of talent, skill, and field vision that may be helpful to some teams. They also bring a certain level of celebrity and stardom to a team that brings with it more media attention. This can contribute either positively or negatively depending on how one looks at it but nonetheless will directly impact the media surrounding the importance of the event itself and the focused attention on certain teams. However, I don't believe that overthrowing the entire system and overhauling the team by inserting star players will be the best recipe for Olympic success. Yet I do believe that some players will bring that extra something - whatever you want to call it, X factor - that some teams may likely need to get them over the final hurdles and on to the medal stand. Some players do have a lot to offer and would no doubt make a positive impact but will likely not be able to just walk in and claim a spot. There is no doubt that competition for a spot on one of these Olympic teams will be especially intense.
Here in America, it certainly wouldn't be outrageous to see guys like Todd Clever, Chris Wyles, or Taku Ngwenya put their hand up in 2014-2015 and make a run at the Games. They, however, are a bit of an exception because they've been on the circuit and have been extremely successful. Yet they've taken a hiatus from 7s to focus on 15s, which seems to have been a good decision and gone rather nicely for all of them! Only time will tell if they opt to take that path and switch codes leading up to 2016 for one last stamp on their decorated careers.
Every rugby player across the globe is excited for Rio in 2016. If not, you better check your pulse and make sure there's something there! But what is your opinion? What is the best recipe for historic glory at the quickly approaching Olympic games? The Olympic cycle has already begun and 2016 isn't all that far away after all.
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