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USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville has told RUGBYMag.com that the National Governing Body is close to being able to professionalize the national 7s team.

Melville said he expects to see the women’s team expand its activities and probably participate in a four-event world circuit next season. Meanwhile the men’s team is expected to have to devote more time to 7s, what with the Pan-Am Games leading directly into the first three tournaments o the 2011-2012 IRB 7s season, Australia, Dubai and South Africa, and a rumored expanded HSBC Sevens World Series.

What is known for sure for the rest of 2011 is a busy calendar. Any player who is on both the USA 15s and 7s team will be in assembly from May through December with breaks only in July and November.
“There are understanding employers, but I can’t think of an employer that would stand for a employee being away that much,” Melville told RUGBYMag.com.

These players will have to be paid, and USA Rugby can do it by diverting IRB High Performance moneys to the 7s program (not for wages, but for other expenses), getting low-cost or freebie facilities through the United States Olympic Committee, sponsorship money, grants, and specific assistance from the USOC.

The 2016 Olympic cycle does not start until after the 2012 Games. But USA Rugby will be meeting with the USOC in August to discuss the need for a foundation for the 7s rugby team now – just as Great Britain, Canada, Russia and other Olympic Committees have done.

“I firmly believe that the next step for us in 7s is to professionalize the team,” Melville said. “In the last four years the program has improved greatly but in many ways they have over-performed. We’re a 5th to 12th-ranked team right now, and we’re probably the only core team that’s not professional. In order to keep pace with this and in order for us to qualify for the Olympics in 2016, I think we need to be a top-six team, and to do that we have to have them in a full-time training environment, and that means making them professional.”

Melville will present his list of needs to the USOC in August, but he hinted at being in talks with sponsors also to help fund the squad. Making the 7s team fill-time will cost around $2 million, Melville said. That is about 25-30 percent of USA Rugby’s current budget (a previous editing error had this number at 40%).

The commitment to professionalize the men’s 7s team, and increase support of the women’s 7s team, also means a shift in emphasis for USA Rugby. Like many rugby nations, the USA sees a quicker path to international success through 7s. The women’s 7s team was third in the world in 2009, while the men’s team has beaten every major rugby nation in 7s except New Zealand and South Africa. The women’s 15s team of course has had some remarkable international success, but the men’s 15s team has only ever beaten one team in the current IRB Top 10, #10 Fiji in 1999.

“After this year the emphasis will change more to 7s,” said Melville. ”There’s a growing momentum in that direction. There are more global opportunities for 7s than 15s. The IRB 7s circuit is year-round; we have to remain competitive in that. There’s been a sea change in how unions approach the game. About 90%, probably more, are now looking at 7s being more cost-efficient than 15s, and offering a better opportunity to compete with the top teams in the world. Things have to be different after the [15s] World Cup.”

That will also mean a change in pay scale for national team coaches will change. Right now RUGBYMag.com estimates are that over 80% of national team coaching salaries are being directed to the men’s 15s team. Most Olympic National Governing Bodies pay their men’s and women’s coaches almost equally, but USA Rugby pays WNT coaches less than $20,000 a year. It certainly seems likely that USA Rugby will adjust its pay structure to bring all four senior team coaches to a more even pay scale, and also allocate assistant coaches more evenly as well.

Melville said he will be involved in helping assess players for the program, and added that just paying players doesn’t make them better. The key, he and coaches have said, is to have them in a consistent, effective training environment, where they don’t have to worry about feeding their family or paying their mortgage.

RUGBYMag.com has reported on similar plans before. Is this a pipe dream?

Melville said no.

“How close are we?” he questioned. “We’re pretty close.”