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2015 will be the biggest year in 7s rugby history, until 2016, when 7s makes its debut in the Olympics. Next year, four teams will qualify for the Rio Games through the HSBC 7s World Series, six via regional qualifying tournaments, and one through a last-chance repechage tournament. The Eagles hope to be among those 12 teams that will participate in Rio, but business has to be taken care of in the last couple of months of 2014 to give them their best shot.
The United States Olympic Committee’s fiscal year runs January through December, so rugby is awaiting the USOC’s decision on how much funding it will receive for 2015 – a monumental year for the Eagles. It’s also a notable year for the USOC as a whole, which has to start funneling money toward the sports with the best chance of succeeding in the upcoming Games.
“The USOC determines their funding two years out for the Olympics, and the first decision is who’s going to medal, and then who’s going to get Gold, and that’s the top priority,” USA Rugby 7s director Alex Magleby told Rugby Today.
The Women’s Eagles, which finished third at the 2013 7s World Cup, are on solid ground, despite a disappointing seventh-place finish on the Women’s World Series last season. The USOC understood that women’s head coach Ric Suggitt was in the midst of a retooling process, during which he blooded several crossover athletes, and optimism surrounding the women’s Eagles is high heading into the season opener in Dubai.
The men, on the other hand, have yet to prove they should be expected to qualify, much less medal, and they would be well served by making some hay in the final two tournaments of the year – Dubai and South Africa. USA Rugby is, and should be, concerned about what could happen if Mike Friday’s charges aren’t trending upward after the next two tournaments.
“You want to see a positive performance trajectory. Obviously, you know what the qualification criteria are to get into the Olympic Games,” said John Crawley, USOC high performance director for team sports. “Internally, what we’re looking at is, are we making headway against what we perceive to be and what we know to be those benchmarks against our key competitors?”
Magleby says there are some specific, hard benchmarks the men need to hit by the end of the year to keep their funding, though he wouldn’t divulge what they were.
“Are there some hard lines? Potentially, yes, but that’s part of the conversation we have with [USA Rugby], but also the conversations we’re having with the coaching staff and everybody associated with the programs every single day,” said Crawley.
“We certainly would rather be in a supportive mindset than a punitive mindset, so we’re doing everything we can on a daily basis to make sure that at the end of 2016, at the end of the Olympic cycle, we’ve done everything we can to ensure the best possible performance of our teams.”
The Eagles are being judged not just by winning percentage and standings, but by other indicators.
“With a sport like rugby that’s got a well-established 7s World Series tour, it’s relatively easy to establish performance benchmarks with respect to performance in that series. The other thing we’re looking at are key performance indicators that are more process oriented in terms of athlete development benchmarks,” Crawley said.
In some of those areas, the men are showing great improvement. Still, everyone involved knows that the most important measurable is tallied on the scoreboard.
“If you look at our yo-yo scores, our player pool team average in a camp of almost 30 is almost as high as our best score when we were doing well on the circuit in 2013, so that’s a positive,” said Magleby.
“Now, doing well on the yo-yo is not winning 7s tournaments, but it’s one measure folks can get confidence behind. Really, it will come down to how well do we do? Are we going to have to win the next three tournaments? No, but we’re just going to have to show we’re on the right track, I think.”
Helping the men is the newness of rugby in the Olympic program, as the USOC isn’t likely to sever the umbilical cord of a fledgling program right away. Crowley sees rugby as a long-term Olympic event, even though some insecurity within the sport worldwide has led to rumors about the International Olympic Committee already considering dropping it after the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Crowley said that skepticism is news to him, and that the USOC is thinking big picture in terms of rugby.
“With the success of the sport internationally with the 7s World Series tour, the continued growth of the sport, and its appeal to not only spectators from an athletic standpoint, but from an environmental standpoint with the camaraderie and the sense of community within the sport,” said Crawley, “I think it’s a sport not only due to takeoff, but it will explode in this country, and I think the IOC will make it part of the Olympic program for the foreseeable future. I see no reason why they wouldn’t.
“This is the first time rugby has been back in the Olympic Games, and to kind of throw the baby out with the bath water in case there’s a bad scenario that happens I think would be irresponsible on our part, because we’re looking at developing a strong rugby tradition in this country for many, many years to come. I think it would be imprudent and irresponsible to, if things don’t work out as we want them to and expect them to, that we somehow forego continued development of the program in this country. I don’t think that that’s really a good idea at all.”
While Crawley was clear about the USOC’s support of the rugby programs, and he glowed about the sport’s reputation as a new member of the Olympic family, the reality is the men could be in line for a big budget cut. About half the money for the player stipends come from the USOC, and the rugby teams benefit greatly from the off-site residency program at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. That’s all potentially in jeopardy if the Eagles flounder in Dubai and South Africa.
“The players and the staff know we have to do well,” said Magleby. “The staff knows there is a tight budget, irregardless, and my job is to make sure there’s a Plan B and a Plan C if money doesn’t come in from certain areas we expect it to.”
Though a budget cut could see USA Rugby having to shoulder the entire financial responsibility of the men’s team beginning in a little over a month, that isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Teams see their funding diverted to more promising programs every Olympic cycle, and some overcome. One example is the men’s water polo team at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Ranked ninth in the world heading in, they won silver.
“They were dealing with some challenging times, both with respect to the organization and running that organization as well as on the field of play,” said Crawley, who oversees eight team sports, of the men's water polo team.
“What happened in Beijing when they came through and won a significant medal, and did so in spite of all the challenges they were facing internally as well as from some of the questions perhaps that the USOC had at that time, I think that’s a really good example of it all comes back to the willingness of the team, the willingness of the coach and the willingness of the athletes to get it done in spite of challenges they maybe face, whether they’re internal or external.”
Ahead of those Games, the water polo team was adopted by the Thousand Oaks community in Southern California. Players were housed and fed by volunteers, and pool time for training was donated by local schools. This, potentially, could be the setup toward which the Eagles are headed.
“We’re obviously hoping for the best case all the way around, that they’re going to perform at the next two tournaments, but more importantly they’re going to continue to improve throughout the remainder of the year and they’re going to find themselves qualified for the Olympic Games at the end of 2015. To us, that is the best-case scenario, is that either finishing in the top four of the 7s World Series, by winning the NACRA event or by winning the last chance qualifier, our efforts are making sure that they get qualified, and however that happens is what our best-case scenario is,” said Crawley.
“If that doesn’t happen, and I personally don’t allow that to get into my mind too much, because my focus is tied very much into the success of that program, but should those things not happen, in my mind, that isn’t a drop dead kind of a situation, because we are looking at the long-term sustainability of rugby in this country.”