While many nations are embracing sevens . . . Ireland continue to lag far behind


SEVENS RUGBY 2016 OLYMPIC GAMES:Sevens Rugby returns to the world’s biggest sporting event, the Olympic Games, in 2016, and many countries are leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of gold, writes EMMA STONEY

IT WOULD make an excellent quiz question: Who are the reigning Olympic Games rugby champions? It is likely that not many people know the answer is the United States.

In 1924 in Paris, the US men won the gold by virtue of defeating France and Romania, who collected the silver and bronze medals. (Only three countries played.)

Not long after, rugby was removed from the Olympic programme. However, in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, rugby – in its shortened sevens format – will return to the world’s biggest sporting event, with both men and women’s teams set to compete.

The rugby landscape now is a vastly different one from those Summer Games almost a century ago.

For starters, the sport is no longer played just for “fun”. The majority of players competing in the highest echelons are paid to do so, and that is beginning to extend to the shortened, quicker format, where more and more countries are putting extra resources into their sevens squads.

England, New Zealand and South Africa have had their sevens players under contract for several years now, and teams like Australia, France and Wales are also choosing to go that route now that there is the prospect of claiming Olympic gold.

USA Rugby has taken the ground-breaking step of awarding several of its players professional contracts for the first time.

Since the start of this year, 11 male and seven female players have had contracts, funded by the US Olympic Committee, to train full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. Their goal: Win in Rio de Janeiro.

Of the 11 men, four were members of the US squad that competed at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Winger Colin Hawley is one of those. “It’s a huge improvement from what we had before. I just think this will do so much more for our team and for us as a rugby-playing country,” he said.

Being surrounded at Chula Vista by successful Olympians – who are now in the final months of preparation before the London Games in July – has already started to rub off on the rugby players, who were more used to juggling jobs and studies with their training and playing schedules.

“They’ve got a goal, and they are setting their minds to it,” Hawley said. “You can tell by their work ethic and their attitude every single day being there, this is a lifestyle. This is the choice to do something great, and you’ve just got to buy into it.”

While his contract will mean Hawley concentrates predominantly on sevens rugby and competing in the HSBC Sevens World Series, he still has aspirations to play at another World Cup. The next one is in England in 2015. But he admitted if he had to choose between England or Rio, the choice would be easy.

“Every person’s dream is to be an Olympian,” he said. “I think I would have to lean that way, but hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. Hopefully we can work things out and the American players can play at both.”

As with all professional sports, with payment comes pressure to perform, and the US sevens coach, Al Caravelli, has clear targets for his team over the next four years.

“Our goal at the end of this season is to be in the top eight,” said Caravelli, whose team currently sits at 13th in the World Series standing. “By 2015 we want to be in the top four in the series so that come 2016, we achieve a gold medal.”

It is a lofty ambition for a country that has yet to fully embrace rugby.

And there is another challenge: Like the United States, other countries are now investing more time and money in sevens rugby because it is an Olympic sport. New Zealand has been a powerhouse in both forms of the game for decades. But even it realises that changes to the way it runs its sevens squad are inevitable.

– New York Times Service

Question Time

Eddie Wigglesworth IRFU Director of Rugby

What is the IRFU’s current policy towards Sevens Rugby?

“We are looking at the whole sevens issue at this point in time. Needless to say, to play Olympic sevens or on the IRB circuit people don’t understand it is a very expensive exercise, particularly at men’s level. Many of the teams have fully contracted squads. At the moment we don’t have the money to fund a separate sevens squad at this time.

“We have to be very pragmatic about how we use our money. At this point in time we simply cannot afford to enter a sevens team into the series because to do so in a competitive fashion would require contracting players full-time.”

How much would it cost?

“The running average at the moment to fund a men’s team on the international circuit would cost somewhere in the region of £800,000. Just short of a million quid and that’s operating on minimal contract values.”

Do the IRB not cover some costs?

“The IRB cover the cost of flying you to the tournament and your costs when you are there. But that’s only if you are in the IRB Sevens series. We are not in the IRB Sevens series.

“We would have substantial additional costs in the years that we sought to qualify with the big boys because we would have to go through the whole European process to get in there. It could take a year or two to get into the series.”

What about a sevens strategy for women’s rugby in Ireland?

“We are looking very seriously at a women’s sevens programme as indeed we are at a men’s programme. We’re progressing that as we speak quite strongly.”

The women have not been entered in this summer’s European Sevens Championships so they can’t qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2013 (and cannot qualify for the new World Series either) . . .

“But you can’t just turn on the tap. Because women’s sevens is an Olympic sport now we are looking at what we will do in relation to that particular exercise.

“If we are going to do it we are going to have to do it right, which means putting in place management structures, training structures, competition programmes that will allow us to compete effectively with a view to qualifying. That is what we are working out at the moment but certainly there would be a strong view that Irish women could compete very successfully on the international stage if we had the programme and the funding to do so.”

So, do you envisage Ireland, either male or female or both, competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro?

“The union hasn’t made a decision one way or the other in relation to that. But the union also appreciates the fact that the time for making the decision is very close because, as I said, you can’t simply turn on the tap for either a men’s or women’s sevens programme.

“If you look at the situation at the moment with the Dutch women’s sevens side, they just had an investment from the Dutch Olympic Council of a million euros. That’s the type of figure that you are talking about. The cost of any medal is a ferocious cost.”

What about funding from the Irish sports council for sevens rugby?

“We are obviously in conversation with the Olympic Council of Ireland and indeed the Irish Sports Council in relation to this. No funding application has been made.”

Granted, you have mentioned cost as an issue, but every other major rugby nation has some form of sevens programme, how come Ireland have fallen so far behind?

“The fact of the matter is we have just built a stadium. At the moment, because of the economic situation here and we put a lot of our investment into the stadium, all the finances that are raised by the professional game are fully and entirely utilised.

“The net consequence is if we need to do sevens then something else will have to give. We have no more money. There is no other way of saying that.”

So, the IRFU policy regarding sevens in 2012 is the same as 2011?

“No, that’s not the case at all because priorities change. We have not ruled out or have we ruled in Olympic involvement in sevens.”

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