The Dubai and Cape Town legs of the World Series have been cancelled

Olympic preparations for sevens teams up in the air

This time next year we’ll be in the middle of the men’s and women’s sevens competitions at the Olympics in Tokyo, but there is much uncertainty around the sport in the shorter term.

When the Games were postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic, many sevens players took the positives of having more time to prepare. As Black Ferns sevens star Kelly Brazier says: “It’s another year to be better.”

However, there are growing concerns about what the immediate future holds for players and the sevens game as a whole. The Telegraph reported last week that England’s men’s and women’s sevens players had been told to look for jobs for the rest of the year with funding due to expire, while some players in other countries have retired or been released from contracts too.

Related: Richard De Carpentier on the uncertainty facing sevens players

Olympic preparations for sevens teams up in the air

Tokyo-bound: England Women booked a place for Team GB by winning the Euro qualifier (Getty Images)

World Rugby has also announced that the first two rounds of the new HSBC World Sevens Series – due to take place in Dubai and Cape Town – have been cancelled, with a working group set up to decide on the best way forward for events in 2021. There could be nearly a year-long gap between World Series events – the most recent tournaments were at the start of March (men’s) and February (women’s) while the next possible dates on the calendar are at the end of January in New Zealand.

Related: New Zealand declared winners of World Sevens Series after season cancelled

It means that teams’ preparations for the Tokyo Olympics have been thrown into disarray. Black Ferns Sevens players will play in the Farah Palmer Cup in New Zealand while many of England’s women’s sevens players are set to play in the Premier 15s, but 15-a-side rugby is not ideal in the lead-up to competing for the biggest prize in sevens.

Another big issue is finding the right time and venue to schedule the repechage with three teams still to book their place at the Games – one in the men’s event and two in the women’s. With several players in the women’s teams in the repêchage also involved in qualifying campaigns for next year’s 15-a-side World Cup, there is a growing fixtures backlog.

Former Scotland back-row John Jeffrey, who sits on the World Rugby Executive Committee and Council, is chairing the working group to look at contingency plans and evaluate preparations for the return of international sevens.

World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said: “While we share in the disappointment of players, teams, fans, hosts and everyone involved with the popular events in Dubai and Cape Town, this is a prudent decision taken with the health and wellbeing of the global rugby community and wider society as our top priority and guided by the relevant government and international public health authority advice.

“Through the Sevens Working Group we are continuing to work very hard in close collaboration with all stakeholders, including host and participating unions, International Rugby Players, and our commercial and broadcast partners to achieve our shared objective of a spectacular return to HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series action as soon as it is safe to do so and we continue to plan and prepare for all remaining events in the 2021 Series.

New Zealand sevens

Double up: New Zealand’s men’s and women’s teams celebrate winning the home leg of the 2020 series (Getty Images)

“Rugby sevens is a key priority for our organisation and as we prepare for the Tokyo Olympic Games hot on the heels of the success of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, 2021 has the potential to provide another huge step-change in the awareness and participation of rugby sevens around the globe.”

Yet with so much uncertainty around the restarting of international competitions and the precarious financial state of many unions, there is also the possibility that sevens could lose momentum. It was a huge success at Rio 2016, with Fiji winning their country’s first-ever Olympic medal when taking gold in the men’s event and Australia triumphant in the women’s tournament, but will Tokyo be able to match it?

Here are some questions we do know the answers to…

When are the Tokyo Olympics taking place? 

The Games are now due to be held from 23 July to 8 August 2021 – the first time they have ever been postponed. The men’s sevens competition will run from 26-28 July, followed by the women’s on 29-31 July.

How do teams qualify? 

The men’s and women’s tournaments each feature 12 teams, with hosts Japan qualifying automatically for both events. Eleven men’s and ten women’s teams have already qualified, via the World Sevens Series or regional events (see graphic below).

Olympic preparations for sevens teams up in the air

Great Britain’s sides have their spots by virtue of England winning the European qualifiers, while Ireland’s men still have a chance via the repêchage tournament.

Which countries are involved in the repêchage? 

The 12 teams taking part in the women’s event are Argentina, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Samoa and Tunisia.

Joining Ireland in the men’s dozen are Brazil, Chile, China, France, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Mexico, Samoa, Tonga, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

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