The buzzword this year on the IRB Sevens Series is parity. Through five tournaments no team has won more than once and only New Zealand’s consistency (they’ve won one tournament and played in the final of three others) has created any separation at the top of the standings. Right below New Zealand teams like South Africa, Samoa, and Fiji are bunched up on points. Only 20 points separates teams two through seven. South Africa, Samoa, and Fiji all have a legitimate chance of overtaking New Zealand if they get hot on the last four stops.
Even at the bottom of the table things are close. Spain, Portugal, and the United States currently occupy the relegation spaces as the bottom three on the table, but Australia, Scotland, and Canada are not out of danger and could easily slide with a few bad tournaments. Every single team on the Series this year has shown the ability to pick up huge wins. Every team but Spain has made the Cup quarterfinals at least once.
The parity that exists on the Series has also seen the resurgence of teams like Kenya and France, both of whom had so-so to poor years last year. Surprisingly, Kenya were second in the standings prior to Las Vegas and looked like a real threat to break through amongst the 7’s elite, but a Shield semi-final in Las Vegas brought them crashing back to earth. France have traditionally been closer to the bottom of the table but a string of good results this year has them squarely near the front. On the flip side, both Australia and England have looked amazingly poor at times this season. Even though England won the Wellington 7’s, that was the only tournament in which they made the Cup quarterfinals. The very next week they crashed out in the Bowl semi-finals.
Why has their been so much parity on the Series this year? Simply, it comes down to the Olympics. This is the first full year in which most teams have had their Olympic programs up and running at full capacity. It was only this last year that the U.S. placed sixteen players on contract; previously they had eight. Other programs, especially among smaller rugby nations, have done something similar.
The inclusion of rugby in the Olympics has seen an increase of money flow into national team sides. The All Blacks received funding to essentially double the salaries for current players. Australia has invested and is bringing in youth players. Still, the best examples of how the Olympics are fueling 7’s is with the teams in North America. The U.S. and Canada are hungry for medals of any kind. The Olympics are a huge source of pride for both countries and both want to do well. This has led to increased funding. In Canada the Own The Podium campaign has become a major source of funding for the national team. It has allowed them to centralize players and pay them a salary. A similar situation has occurred in the United States where the United States Olympic Committee has provided not only money, but facilities for the athletes to use.
In developing rugby countries this influx of money has allowed teams to bring in more players with an eye to the future. What you are seeing on the current Series is simply a manifestation of some of that talent. Players want to earn gold medals. A player in a country like Portugal would rather play at the Olympics rather than the World Cup. There is no doubt that playing in the World Cup would be nice, but as a small country little attention would be paid to the team in comparison. The Olympics offers the chance for a player to take part in something that gets noticed both at home and abroad.
Signing a 7’s contract also represents a livelihood that is already available to players in other countries. New Zealand have been amazing in 7’s since the beginning but at the same time it’s interesting to think that some of their players aren’t quite up to the Super Rugby level. This is not to say that they aren’t good (their number one position tells the story) it’s just to say that as other countries bring in some of their better players, the parity amongst teams is going to improve.
The current level of parity could change in the next few years as more players begin to think about Rio. Some of the top names in rugby could find themselves paying more attention to 7’s and the difference between teams would rise again, but in the mean time parity has created one of the most exciting Series yet. Almost every match is close and it’s a dog fight every week to see who will make the Cup quarterfinals. As the season winds down to it conclusion, it’s only going to get tighter.
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