Road to Rio – Chasing the Olympic Dream

First of all, congratulations to Ben Ryan and the Fiji Rugby 7s team who last weekend completed the defence of their World Series crown. With the Series over for another year, thoughts now move to Brazil, where rugby will be making its long-awaited return to the Olympic Games.

Rugby was last played at the Olympics in 1924, when the USA won Gold in the 15-man code ahead of France and Romania, the only other nations to compete. This will be the début of Rugby 7s at the Olympics, with 12 teams competing over 2 days. As hosts, Brazil qualified automatically. So far they have been joined by Fiji, Great Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, USA, France, Japan, Australia and Kenya. The final qualifier will be decided at a 16-team competition in Monaco in mid-June. Anything can happen in a tournament, but it is likely that Samoa or Canada will be the victor and take the final Olympic spot.

Since the Olympic return was announced, a number of unions have pushed funds towards the 7-man code in order to give their nation the best chance of Olympic glory. A number of nations have also opened their door to 15s players who they hope could help them get a place on the podium. But which teams have the best chance of getting a medal?

Fiji

Having won the World Series the last 2 years, Fiji have to be the favourites to win Gold. Always a fan favourite, the Fijians may not be the best defensively, but their natural skill and attacking ability allows them to often outscore the opposition. You have to go back to the 2010/11 season to find the last time that Fiji finished outside the top 3 in the World Series. Of course, the Olympics is a single tournament, so a weak defence could prove costly, but with experienced sevens stars such as Jasa Veremalua, Osea Kolinisau (both in this season’s Dream Team), Samisoni Viriviri and Semi Kunatani, you can guarantee there won’t be a boring moment when Fiji are on the pitch.

Glasgow lock and offload king Leone Nakarawa has also spent some time back with the 7s team. The ability to offload out of a tackle, thereby taking the tackler and maybe even extra defenders out of the game, always comes in handy in rugby, but probably even more so in 7s, where there are only 7 men to cover the whole pitch. There may also be a spot in the Olympic squad for cross-code star Jarryd Hayne, who made his Fiji 7s début at Twickenham last weekend. His performances in the NRL and NFL suggest that if he can quickly get up to speed with the style of play, he could be one of the breakout stars in Rio.

Bringing in new players so close to the tournament, especially those with limited experience of the game, will always be risky, but Fiji have the right man at the helm to give them the best possible chance. Former England 7s Head Coach Ben Ryan has done a great job installing more order to the Fijian play whilst keeping the natural flair that everyone knows and loves.

Likely to have the support of neutral fans due to their style of play, I fully expect to see Fiji on the podium and would not be surprised to see them win gold.

New Zealand

Like Fiji, New Zealand will always be pushing for the latter stages at individual tournaments, and will always be towards the top in the end-of-season standings. With the experience of IRB Hall of Fame member Gordon Tietjens guiding them, you can guarantee that the All Blacks Sevens team will be doing everything they can to win gold at Rio. 44 players have moved on from Titch’s squads to be capped by the All Blacks in the 15-man code.

A number of 15s players have spent some or all of the season with the 7s squad in the hopes of making the Olympics team. Most notably are World Cup winners Liam Messam (one of those to graduate from international 7s to 15s) and Sonny Bill Williams. I mentioned earlier the benefit of having a player who can frequently offload out the tackle and Williams showed that perfectly against South Africa in the pool stages of the Wellington 7s, where was tackled by 3 players but till managed to get the offload to allow Joe Webber to run in untouched. Titch also has a number of 7s regulars to pick from as well, including Gillies Kaka, Tim Mikkelson and DJ Forbes.

New Zealand may have only finished 3rd in the World Series this season, but given the amount of squad rotation due to injuries and experimentation, that is still a good result. They were also able to win 3 tournaments this season, the only team other than Fiji (also 3) to win multiple tournaments.

As a team they also have great experience of winning the big tournaments, having won 2 Rugby World Cup Sevens events (2001 & 2013) and 4 Commonwealth Games gold medals (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010) under Tietjens. This gives me confidence that New Zealand can grab a medal, and they are probably the team with the best chance of beating the Fijians to gold.

South Africa

Though they only won a single tournament, the Blitzbokke’s consistency saw them beat New Zealand to 2nd place in the overall standings in the World Series. Along with Fiji, they were the only team to field 2 players in this season’s Dream Team: Kwagga Smith and Seabelo Senatla. We’ve known for a couple of season that Senatla was a real talent, but he made it perfectly clear this year, scoring a whopping 66 tries in the World Series. By comparison, the next highest amount of tries was 45 from Perry Baker. Senatla also narrowly missed out to Madison Hughes as the top points scorer in the series, scoring 330 points to Hughes’ 331. There is no substitute for pace in 7s and Senatla has plenty of that.

Bryan Habana is another high profile name looking to make his national team for the Olympics, as is Worcester scrum half Francois Hougaard, but with the quality of players available for South Africa – including Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Roscko Speckman and captain Kyle Brown – there is no guarantee either of them will actually make it to Rio as anything more than a spectator.

South Africa also come into this as current Commonwealth Games Champions, experience that could prove vital in their quest for gold. I think if the draw goes in their favour the Blizbokke could get gold, but find it much more likely they will be fighting for the bronze.

Australia

The Aussies are a difficult teams to judge. Runners up this season in the USA and also their home event, they struggled to consistently come away from events with a decent points haul, but were still able to make it to 4th in the overall standings. They may not have the as many ‘superstar’ players as some of the teams mentioned here, but their ability to play well as a team means they could very easily cause an upset against the more favoured teams. I can see them making the semis but, barring a favourable draw, expect them to just miss out on the podium.

USA

USA Rugby have put a big focus on 7s to help the development of rugby in the USA. The 7s team is not used to develop players from the national 15-a-side team, but has also been pushing to maximise their chances of Olympic glory, having offered their players professional contracts since 2012.

As discussed in a previous post a number of athletes have crossed over from other sports in order to try and win a medal. The most notable name in recent months has been Super Bowl Champion Nate Ebner, who was given leave by the New England Patriots to try out for the Olympic inclusion, having previously played for the national 7s team as a teenager. Former Philadelphia Eagle Perry Baker has had a great season, second only to Senatla in the try scoring charts and 5th overall on points scored, also making the season’s Dream Team.

This season’s top points scorer Madison Hughes is likely to be leading the team in Rio, and will possibly be joined by Zack Test, Danny Barrett and Thretton Palamo – all of whom featured for the USA during the 2015 Rugby World Cup – and the fastest man in world rugby Carlin Isles.

The USA team has come on leaps and bounds since Mike Friday took over. Before the 2014/15 season, their best finish in the World Series had been 10th, but they have now finished 6th 2 years running and also won their first ever tournament last year at Twickenham.

The USA maybe don’t have the strength in depth that some of the other sides do, but on their day and with a favourable draw, the USA could be dark horses to finish on the podium.

Great Britain

Great Britain are probably the hardest team to judge at this moment. They have not yet had any serious time together as a team, which puts them at a disadvantage, but hey have also been able to have a larger number of players taking part in the World Series each week thanks to them competing as 3 separate countries.

As individual countries, their results don’t make the best of reading for Team GB fans: England finishing 8th overall, Scotland 10th and Wales 12th. They managed one tournament victory between them, Scotland’s win last weekend. However what must be taken into account here is that England’s squad, much like the All Blacks, has been frequently changed this year to try and help keep players like Tom Mitchell and Dan Norton at peak fitness for the Olympics, whilst also to try and deal with injuries to regulars like Dan Bibby.

Head coach Simon Amor’s Olympic plans will ave also been hindered by the lack of help from the national unions or the clubs. Joe Simpson and Mark Bennett are probably the most notable names from 15s to be picked for the training squad, however unlike Williams and Habana, they have not been released by their clubs to spend any time on the World Series this season, giving them a limited time to transition to the shorter form of the game. Marcus Watson was also not released by Newcastle until their season was over. Having more experience of 7s, he may be able to get back up to speed quicker but there is no guarantee of that.

This lack of time on the sevens circuit means that they will have a limited time to gel together, harming their chances, but it does also mean that the opposition will have less of an idea what to expect, which could help balance the field slightly.

Simon Amor will look to get the best out of the players he selects, but at this moment I think a semi final spot would be a fantastic result but would probably require a very favourable draw. At this moment the best chance of a medal for Team GB Rugby would appear to be in the women’s game…

My expected Top 4

  1. Fiji
  2. New Zealand
  3. South Africa
  4. USA
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Thoughts on the England squad

Over the last few days, we’ve had 3 England squads named: the 32-man senior squad for the Australia tour, the 27-man Saxons squad to tour South Africa and a 26-man squad for Sunday’s match against Wales. The Saxons squad has only 69 senior England Caps, but this was to be expected from previous comments that this was to be a ‘developmental’ squad. Probably the biggest talking points have come from the senior squad, where Eddie Jones has named 4 uncapped players and also left out a few high profile names.

Below are my initial thoughts on the squad picked for the Australia tour. Before going any further, I want to make perfectly clear that I am a Gloucester fan, but regardless of this I have tried my best to be as unbiased as possible when giving my views.

 

Wingers

This time last year I thought that Jack Nowell was overrated. Now I feel that if anything he may be underrated (except by Chiefs fans obviously). Nowell has had a cracking season and is now surely guaranteed a starting spot for England on the wing.

Another wing who has been in fine form for his club has not been so lucky. Chris Ashton is possibly the most high profile omission from the touring party, despite having scored 10 times since his return from suspension. I’m by no means the biggest fan of Ashton, but his ability to find his way to the try-line is undeniable. Where Nowell is a playmaker, Ashton is a pure finisher, always managing to get in position to receive that final pass and finish the move. Ashton’s defence has often been regarded as his weak point, and Eddie Jones’ comment that “there are parts of Ashton’s game we’re not happy with” suggests this could be what his holding him back. However his omission from both the senior squad and the Saxons suggests that he is currently at best the 7th choice wing for England, which seems absurd. Eddie Jones has also suggested that Ashton’s try scoring record is in part due to the strength of his supporting cast. This is logical, but his record at Northampton and in previous England squads suggests that he could still be prolific in any decent team; an international XV should be more than strong enough give him the same quality of chances that he gets for Saracens.

Included in place of Ashton are current England starter Anthony Watson and Harlequins Marland Yarde. I can’t really argue with Watson – his form has been good for England and there is no substitute for pure pace – but Yarde seems an odd decision. I  haven’t seen much of Yarde’s play this season, but have seen nothing to suggest that the “potential” Jones mentions earns him a place over Semesa Rokoduguni or the electric Christian Wade, both of whom have been included in the Saxons squad.

Back Row

The back row is certainly an area of strength for England. If not for injury, Josh Beaumont would have surely been selected for at least the Saxons squad, whilst experienced veterans Tom Wood and Ben Morgan have missed out on selection altogether. This strength in depth is great news for England, but certainly doesn’t make it easy when selecting a touring squad.

Teimana Harrison has been in outstanding form for Northampton and probably has the best chance of anyone to break up Jones’ preferred trio of Robshaw, Haskell and Vunipola. Jack Clifford is a great young player whose Engalnd 7s experience gives the senior squad something a little different in open play.

Haskell and Robshaw are both great players and tackling machines, they are top quality 6s who are both capable of playing 7, but neither is likely to dominate the breakdown against the Australian pairing of David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Both of these players will also be past their prime years come the next World Cup, so maybe it is time to replace at least one of them with a younger player who could grow along with the squad.

What Matt Kvesic has to do to increase his number of England caps is beyond me. He has just had possibly his best season yet and is highly experience at club level despite being only 24, having been a regular for Worcester and now Gloucester. If the quality of the Saracens team has counted against Ashton, then surely the quality of this season’s Gloucester team should make Kvesic’s stats even more impressive. He is surely the best ‘jackal’ available to England, yet it seems that this is not enough to get him beyond the training squads for the senior England team. The World Cup showed the importance of a top quality open-side, yet England seem to prefer to play 2 blind-sides and spread the responsibility of the breakdown around the whole team. With the publicity that Sam Underhill has been receiving this year, I’m sure that I’m not the only Gloucester fan worrying how many more times Kvesic can be overlooked by England before he decides to move to a team that gets more recognition from the England coaches.

Ben Te’o

A former teammate of Sam Burgess at South Sydney Rabbitoh’s, Te’o has shown the reward for perseverance  when things don’t go immediately right after a code-swap. I haven’t paid as much attention as intended to the Pro12 this season, but even I have heard of the great season Te’o has been having, resulting in a big money move to Worcester this summer. With the possibility that Manu Tuilagi’s latest injury setback could see him miss the tour, the strength and offloading ability Te’o has will give England an extra option to the gameplan that they did not have during their Grand Slam campaign. My only reservation here is that he has not actually played in the Premiership yet. This seems somewhat against the selection rules that England have worked by in recent years. With Luther Burrell included in the Saxons squad, there was clearly another crash ball centre available to the senior squad, so I cannot see that the selection of Ben Te’o constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Fly Half

After Chris Ashton, probably the biggest omission in the mainstream media’s eyes has been Danny Cipriani. Cipriani’s form in recent seasons at Sale has seen him land a return (though maybe not in a geographical sense) to former club Wasps. Though not always a reliable goal kicker (62% this season)* Cipriani brings something different to the fly halves picked in the touring squad.

George Ford has had a poor season. He, like Bath as a whole, has not been firing on all cylinders and was probably rather lucky that a lack of options in midfield forced Farrell to play as a centre during the 6 Nations. With the return from injury of Henry Slade, I can see Farrell moved back to his usual position.

I would love Slade to start spending more time at fly half for Exeter next season, as I really think that he has the all round ability to be the long-term answer at 10 for England.On current form I would have Owen Farrell as my number 10, with Cipriani ready to come off the bench to cause havoc once the opposition tire.

 

Chasing the Olympic Dream

We’ve seen a number of 15s players spend all/parts of the season taking part in the World Sevens Series, with an eye to making their national teams for the Rio Olympics. Players like Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam, Nick Cummins, Brian Habana and Worcester scrum half Francois Hougaard are just a few of the players pushing for Olympic inclusion. This has not been so simple for Great Britain, who compete in the World Series as its constituent countries rather than as a whole. For that reason, any 15s player hoping to make the Team GB squad needed to give up their chances of touring with England this summer in order to train with the 7s players and be involved in the invitational tournaments that the squad is involved in. The only England player who chose to do so was Wasps scrum half Joe Simpson.

I can’t say for certain, but I would be very surprised if Cipriani and Wade were not sounded out by Simon Amor and his coaching team, but if so it would appear that both players chose to focus on selection for Eddie Jones’ squad. As such it seams rather a waste to see both players will spending the summer facing South Africa A rather than troubling the Aussies or pushing for Olympic glory.

 

 

This may seem like a rather negative article, but I am still confident in the ability of the squad that has been picked. Neither Wales or Australia will be easy opponents, but I have faith that the players selected will give 100% for their country. The Premiership final is on Saturday, so from Sunday onwards it’s time to put all domestic rivalries aside, pull on the white shirt with the red rose, belt out a chorus or ten of Swing Low and cheer on the boys to (hopefully) victory!

 

* Statistics taken from http://www.ukrugbystats.co.uk/AVIVA-PREMIERSHIP-STATS-2015-16