by Preeti Virdee
12th October 2012
FOLLOWING the splendour and excitement of London 2012, Rio 2016 is not in the too distant future, and this time the rugby world has cause to feel part of the next spectacle which is the greatest show on earth. Rio de Janiero will be hosting the next Olympics, and Brazil will be welcoming rugby back into the fold after it was unceremoniously dumped in 1924 after a mass-pitch invasion at Paris, albeit Rugby Sevens not XVs.
Four years may seem like a lifetime away, but with only 12 teams able to qualify in an attempt to win a much coveted Gold medal, that is only four World Series and one final Rugby World Cup 7s next year in Russia. And only the top four on the HSBC World Series circuit will automatically qualify.
Currently the proposal* for qualification is in three stages, but as yet this has not been formalised by the IOC:
Stage 1: HSBC Sevens World Series
Stage 2: Regional Olympic Qualification Tournaments (ROQTs)
Stage 3: World Olympic Qualification Tournament (WOQT)
• Four teams will qualify directly from the HSBC SWS into the Olympics based on Rankings achieved in the 2014/15 HSBC Sevens World Series
• England, Scotland and Wales will participate in the HSBC SWS as individual countries (should they qualify as core teams) with the highest ranked team in the top four of the 2014/15 HSBC SWS rankings qualifying Great Britain into the Olympics. Should one of the countries fail to get a top four ranking then the GB countries will attempt to qualify through the Regional FIRA-AER tournament and subsequently the World Olympic Qualification Tournament
• Six teams will qualify from Regional Olympic Qualification Tournaments to be held in 2015 with a quota of one team from each IRB Region securing direct qualification
• Two teams will qualify from a final World Olympic Qualification Tournament which will be the final stage in the Olympic Qualification process and can take place any time up until two weeks prior to the Rio 2016 Games. The tournament could be a 12 or 16 team format
• Teams will qualify into the World Olympic Qualification Tournament based on rankings achieved in their respective Regional Olympic Qualifications Tournaments with an agreed quota of places from each Region to be determined by the IRB
• If the Host Country is given an automatic qualification place then only one team will qualify from the World Olympic Qualification Tournament
And so it begins…the start of the HSBC Sevens World Series 2012-13…
But with all changes afoot in world 7s rugby, there are a few modifications that have been made to the tournament this season to reflects the IRB's mission to deliver a pathway that ensures all Member Unions have a transparent and merit-based opportunity to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2016.
The number of core teams has increased from 12 to 15, following the qualification of Canada, Portugal and Spain. And from the end of the Series, promotion and relegation from core team status will come into effect, with a pre-qualifying competition in Hong Kong and a final core team qualifier in London at the ninth and final round of the season.
The 2013 Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens will feature 28 teams, an increase on the usual 24, and will comprise two distinct competitions: In the first, the 15 current core teams and the winner of the HSBC Asian Sevens Series will compete for the famous Hong Kong title and World Series points. In the second competition, 12 teams - two qualifiers from each of the six regional tournaments - will compete for places at the core team qualifying final in London.
The Marriott London Sevens, the final round of the Series, will also feature two distinct tournaments, and a total of 20 teams. In the first, the top 12-ranked sides in the HSBC Sevens World Series standings after round eight in Glasgow will compete for the London title, and final World Series points towards their overall tally. In the second, the 13th, 14th and 15th-ranked core teams after the Glasgow event will compete against five pre-qualified regional teams from Hong Kong, for the three available core team places on the 2013/14 HSBC Sevens World Series.
And like that’s not enough to cope with, England Sevens are about to experience an even tougher time than all the other nations competing; England cannot qualify for the Olympics. Despite being the only Northern Hemisphere to penetrate the elusive top four of the World Series, coming in third in three of the last four years, England makes up only a quarter of Team GB, the others being the remaining countries of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has no team; traditionally players from the northern counties have plied their trade with the Irish XVs side, and the IRFU has no Sevens programme at national level. Wales and Scotland have never even come close to touching the top 4 in the World Series, invariably in stasis around 9th and 10th positions respectively. This does not bode well from the outset, even though there is the precedent of the British & Irish Lions in the XVs arena.
The gentleman charged with navigating England through the upcoming World Series, the Rugby World Cup Sevens, Rio 2016 and beyond is Ben Ryan, the longest serving England Sevens Head Coach of all time. Ryan, a winning Cambridge Blue in ’96 and ’97, Light Blues 7s Captain, who played for England at U18, 19 and 21, was a master at St Edward’s, Oxford before shifting his attention to full time coaching. Before Ryan’s arrival, Teddies (St Edward’s) was not internationally renowned for sport; by the time of his departure six years later, Benjamin Ryan had students in every England age group from U16s to James Forrester in the Seniors.
Newbury Blues was to benefit from Ryan’s excellence before he was snapped up by the Rugby Football Union, first as Assistant Coach to the England Counties South America Tour in 2005, then as Head Coach, eventually taking the helm at England Sevens in 2007.
Like England’s new XVs Head Coach, Stuart Lancaster, the philosophy and methodology of having once been a teacher brings a whole new perspective to coaching at the highest level. Only 3 years ago, Ryan would be meeting his team for the first time in an airport lounge en route to a World Series tournament somewhere on the planet. The team churned through 39 players, borrowing whoever could be given up by a Premiership side. Ryan has affected a change in the ethos, the culture, and even has convinced the RFU into signing players directly on contracts for Sevens Rugby alone, though the governing body would never admit to central contracting players for fear of alienating the revenue generating Premiership!
Today, thanks to Ryan’s efforts and the Olympic effect, England now has a programme of Sevens Rugby which begins with schools and universities, involves summer rugby and academies. Though they may still travel cattle class across the globe, there are now 19 full time England Sevens players, a number likely to grow as the season unfolds. No longer are these players being paid a pittance, but a on par with an average Premiership player, and therefore can now commit to full time sevens. Though chances are it is likely you will never have heard of the majority of the England Sevens squad, with the exception of possibly captain, Rob Vickerman (Newcastle Falcons), Ollie Smith (Newcastle Falcons, Stade Français), Mat Turner (Western Province, U20 Springboks, Bristol), and the effervescent Chris Cracknell who has been with Ryan since his Newbury days. Cracknell has had a colourful taste of English rugby, taking in Quins, Bath, Exeter and Worcester on his travels before the Coach managed to coax him into a full time 7s career rather than his beloved boat-building. The others, mostly taken from the RFU Championship and developed into the England 7s programme, with little danger of Directors of Rugby throwing hissy fits that their boys had returned from the Dubai 7s half a stone lighter!
Ryan’s aim is to create the number 1 team in the world, to take the crown from New Zealand who last season won the HSBC World Series for the 10th time, to play a different brand of rugby that will allow England to become the best not just for a season but consistently. He cites the 2008 Wellington 7s as a moment when he realised what needed to change, and the Adelaide 7s as rock bottom for the team.
The morning of the New Zealand tournament, Ryan followed the Kiwi team from their hotel and watched the All Blacks do 30 minutes of exhausting hill sprints before heading to the ground and winning the tournament; in that team were Israel Dagg, Viktor Vito and Liam Messam. He knew there was no way the England squad would have lasted 10 minutes. The wakeup call that became the catalyst to transform England 7s was in Australia two months later. England headed down under with anticipation, and proceeded to lose every pool match, the Bowl, and even the Plate (which was later called a draw for a missed conversion). Ryan told Rob Andrew that either the 7s was properly funded, or they had better pack it in.
Andrew was about to throw in the towel, but the IRB called and asked the RFU to stay on board to back the Olympic bid. For a nation with the highest participation levels in the world, it would have looked quite odd to not field a 7s side at national level, so money was found, and England 7s was turned on its head.
England is now the only Northern Hemisphere side to match the New Zealands, Fijis and Samoas in Sevens, piercing the top 4 world rankings consistently. It has a pathway to success, players committed to the cause who are manageable and measurable. And a very shrewd Ryan managed to convince Dr Scott Drawer - Head of Research and Innovation at UK Sport - to use the England 7s team as guinea pigs for every new gadget and programme to track and measure every aspect of the players at no cost to the RFU over 3 years; some of that same technology went on to be widely-used at London 2012, and England 7s has reaped the benefits.
Today England 7s has funding, innovation, research, a centrally contracted pool of players, and a heap of tournaments to test themselves to become the best. Outside of the World Series, England now participate in the Commonwealth Games, the next being held in Glasgow in 2014, and annually in the FIRA AER European GP Sevens Series (Champions 2012).
Of course they are looking forward to the Rio 2016 Olympics, and have every intention of winning medals. But since it is not Team England but Team GB heading to Brazil, Ryan can but hope that at least half a dozen of the England 7s squad will make it. And he is making it clear to all who want Olympic medal glory in professional rugby, no one without a 7s contract will be in the running. Just because players are in the England Elite, that will not be a golden ticket into Team GB. With the complications of countries coming together late in the day in 2016, a XVs world cup the previous year where no national coach will be prepared to hand over his players in 2015, IRB permission to be sought if Team GB want to field a joint side in the preceding World Series etc., there is yet a minefield for Ryan to work through prior to Rio 2016.
Ryan has a sensible head on his 41 year old shoulders. His priority is to make England 7s the best in the world. Yes the Olympics is of huge importance, but to get perspective, it is just 2 weeks every 4 years. England’s programme is 10 months every year. The Sevens boys are together far more than any national XVs side; in a year they will have at least 80 training days, 180 days away, and notch up an impressive 80,000 miles a year (with the jet lag to match).
And the competition is fierce; unlike 5 years ago, thanks to the Olympics and increased funding, far more countries now have dedicated full time 7s sides including the South African Blitzbokke, France, Spain and Portugal. Australia, Canada, China and Holland are well on their way, and with gold medals as the enticement, the United States are all over sevens rugby. The likes of Kenya has a thriving and hugely popular 7s team which is now rivalling the top echelons of world rugby sevens, led by England's former coach, Mike Friday.
For Benjamin Ryan, the plan is one world series tournament at a time…first stop, the Gold Coast.