The first four legs of the World Series have been cancelled, but World Rugby has announced a funding boost
Olympic preparations for sevens teams up in the air
In less than a 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 in July 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 the WRU announced at the end of August that the Wales “men’s sevens programme will cease to operate in its current format for the forseeable future due to the ongoing impact of Covid-19”. Some players in other countries have retired or been released from contracts too.
World Rugby has launched a sevens investment strategy to try to help teams prepare for the Olympics, with an initial fund of $2.5m (£1.92m) available to help national unions who have qualified for Tokyo.
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said: “Rugby sevens is a key priority for World Rugby in our mission to grow the global game and we are pleased to be able to share details of this new investment.
“Combined with the ongoing contingency work on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2021 and a supplementary international competition strategy, this will ensure that Olympic-qualified teams have the necessary training and high-level competition opportunities to optimise their performance and light up the biggest sporting stage at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.”
Rugby World understands that Team GB, who will compete in both the men’s and women’s events in Tokyo, will be able to apply for funding from World Rugby, just as the likes of Australia and New Zealand can.
A World Rugby spokesperson said: “We are in touch with all the relevant unions which form Team GB at the Olympic Games. The funding being made available is to support Olympic preparation and we look forward to receiving their application to best achieve this.”
The fact there are no tournaments on the horizon will certainly impact teams. The first four rounds of the new HSBC World Sevens Series – due to take place in Dubai, Cape Town, Hamilton and Sydney – have been cancelled, with a working group set up by World Rugby to decide on the best way forward for events in 2021.
The Dubai and Cape Town legs were cancelled in July, while the New Zealand and Australia events, which were scheduled for late January 2021, were called off in September.
There is now likely to be more than a year between World Series events, and those plans could still be impacted by the pandemic. The most recent tournaments were at the start of March (men’s) and February (women’s), and World Rugby is now working towards holding the Hong Kong and Singapore legs in April 2021.
It means that teams’ preparations for the Tokyo Olympics have been thrown into disarray. New Zealand sevens players will play in the Mitre 10 Cup (men’s) and Farah Palmer Cup (women’s) 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.
An Oceania sevens tournament in early 2021 is being mooted, along with other regional tournaments that may be easier to facilitate given current travel restrictions, but nothing is confirmed yet.
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.
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).
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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