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The New Zealand Rugby Union is setting aside $2 million to bring in 15s stars for the 2016 Olympic run, according to a report from the New Zealand Herald. Sonny Bill Williams, Cory Jane and Liam Messam are some of the names being bandied about, and if the NZRU is going to ask these players to miss out on their Super Rugby contracts for the 2016 season, they’re going to have to pay them.
This is not the first we’ve heard of a Rio medal contender talking about bringing in some of the game’s biggest 15s stars to bolster their shot at gold, and there’s been plenty of chatter about the IRB and IOC wanting the world’s biggest rugby stars involved. But now it’s getting real.
"I've sent out a huge wishlist to all the players I consider could be real contenders to go to the Olympics," New Zealand head coach Gordon Tietjens told the Herald. "They will make a decision as to whether they want to be considered and, if they do, then in that year, sevens becomes the priority."
In the years since the announcement of 7s’ inception as an Olympic sport, I’ve asked USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville and Eagles coaches Al Caravelli, Alex Magleby and Matt Hawkins about the possibility of bringing in some of the USA’s overseas pros for the Olympic effort. While the concept wasn't dismissed entirely, I never got the idea there was a real plan to make it happen. There should be.
First, the USA needs to qualify. That likely won’t happen until after the 2014/2015 World Series and sometime between June 2015 and December 2015 at the North American qualifier. Given the World Cup begins in September and runs through October, and the 2015/2016 7s World Series is likely to commence in November or December, it would make the most sense if the North American qualifier took place sooner than later. Either way, the USA and Canada will likely be trying to qualify without any 15s big guns, because of the World Cup.
Then, assuming the Eagles qualify, USA Rugby should be pouring resources into getting the best American-eligible rugby players in the world ready for Rio. If the Eagles fail to beat Canada at the North American tournament, USA Rugby should be pouring resources into qualifying via the repechage tournament, for which a date has not been set.
That would mean those select players, I’m thinking Samu Manoa, Todd Clever, Chris Wyles, Blaine Scully, Cam Dolan, Thretton Palamo, Brett Thompson, Scott Lavalla and Takudzwa Ngwenya ought to be considered, (and certainly not all of them would be brought in) would need to move Stateside and focus on 7s immediately following some rest time after the World Cup. They would be getting back into 7s shape and the right mindset, eventually competing for playing time on the ‘15/’16 World Series.
$2 million is a lot of money, certainly more than USA Rugby has in its piggy bank, but the American overseas pros are presumably (finding details on rugby contracts isn’t quite as easy as in American pro sports) at least a little cheaper than those New Zealand might bring in. And USA Rugby has had five years now to prepare for such an expense.
In a time when USA Rugby is hauling in more money for test matches than ever before, and reportedly guaranteeing $1 million to the All Blacks just for coming to play in the United States, there is no excuse for underfunding the Olympic effort.
There is a lot of attention being paid to the All Blacks test in November, but there is no arguing the Olympics is rugby’s fastest, most effective route to the American sporting conscience. The All Blacks played the Eagles in an NFL stadium live on ESPN with unprecedented media coverage in 1980. It didn’t wake the sleeping giant then, and it won’t in 2014. What might is the Eagles getting significant air time on NBC and its networks during the 2016 Olympic Games, which it can’t do if it doesn’t qualify or win.
While the already-best team in the world is prepping for an arms race to solidify its chances at a shot at gold, USA Rugby is, again reportedly, paying New Zealand half the amount of money it's earmarking for Olympic efforts just to come to the United States and, if we’re being honest about expectations, beat our 15s team comfortably.
That seems backwards to me, and if USA Rugby is serious about getting to the podium, it needs to enter the arms race. We don’t have to compete with the All Blacks for players, thankfully, but what we have to do is compete for our own players. If the payday from the All Blacks game helps USA Rugby field its best team for the Olympic effort, that’s fine – New Zealand would likely be investing with or without our dollars, anyway. But let’s not help another team afford its campaign for the podium without investing more in our own.