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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