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Eagles 7s Steep Hill to Climb to Make Rio
Ever since the IOC announced the triumphant return of rugby—albeit the short game—to the Olympic Games beginning in 2016, 7s has grown by leaps and bounds in the U.S., particularly in the college ranks. On the lips of everyone has been one word: “Olympics.” The problem, however, is that the current state of affairs does not bode well for the Eagles chances of qualifying for the 2016 games. In February, we got the long awaited confirmation of the qualification process, and it’s safe to say that the odds are against us.
Sixteen teams will get the chance to pursue gold. Only one spot has been locked up. As the host nation, Brazil—an insignificant factor in the 7s community—has an automatic bid. The other fifteen spots will be claimed throughout 2014 and 2015. Four spots shall be awarded to the top four finishers in the upcoming IRB Sevens World Series season. Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America will each send a delegate. The remaining slot will be decided by a repechage tournament.
Next Four In: New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji, & England (Great Britain)
With Brazil already allocated a spot, let us turn to the next four in: the top four finishers of the World Series. The top four finishers of the past season were New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji, and England respectively. While there can be dramatic movement from year-to-year in IRB results for some teams—such as Canada’s 6th place finish this year, a six spot improvement—the top four spots have been dominated by five teams since the inception of the World Series in 1999. Of fifteen seasons, New Zealand has claimed the top spot 12 times, including the last 4. New Zealand has never missed a top four finish. As dominant as that seems, even more impressive is that of the 127 tournaments contested, they have claimed the top prize 51 times (40.16%). The next closest is Fiji at 23 wins. Meaning, you can chalk the All Black Sevens in.
That leaves just three more spots up for grabs in the series. Back-to-back runner-up is South Africa, who along with Samoa and Fiji is one of the only teams to ever oust New Zealand for the series title. One concern is that unlike New Zealand, South Africa has found itself outside of the top four more than once; most recently in 2011-12. More alarming for the Springboks is the historical problem of maintaining success. South Africa’s single worst finish—6th place in 2009-10—came the season after it claimed the series championship. Nevertheless, the Springboks have been riding high and have finished in the top four 12 out of 15 seasons. The Springboks are a lock.
Like the Boks, there is one more team that can be chalked in for Rio: Fiji. The two time World Cup champions, one time series champs, and only team other than New Zealand to never finish outside the top four, only a fool would bet against Fiji.
This leaves one spot and two strong contenders: England and Samoa. Despite the fact that Samoa rounds out the only four teams to ever claim series prize, the original World Cup winners have a track record of consistency that leaves my money on the English to grab the fourth spot. This past season, Samoa not only failed to grab a top five finish for the first time since 2008-09, it finished in the middle of the pack at 8th and failed to make the cup bracket four times in 2013-14. England, a 16-time cup champion, has been a perennial top six finisher ever since 2001-02, and has the talent pool to call upon that will seal the deal. England clinching this spot will have a ripple effect. Of course, unlike FIFA and IRB play, England competes alongside Wales and Scotland as Great Britain in the Olympics. Once any of the three teams locks up a bid, they are all in.
Darkhorses: Australia and Samoa.
Samoa, is the obvious contender to push England for an automatic bid. Australia, on the other hand, has been trending up the past two seasons. After four top five finishes in the first four seasons of the series, the Wallabies cracked the top five this past season for only the second time since. Like England, Australia also has a much deeper talent pool to tap in a push to snag the fourth spot
Despite the history of the Hong Kong Sevens, there is only one team that could conceivably come out of Asia: Japan. The two-time defending Asia Games champion and IRB core team has a rapidly developing professional league and has the feel of a nation on the rise. The only two competitors on paper are Hong Kong and South Korea, the silver and bronze medal winners, respectively, from the 2010 Asia Games. Nevertheless, more than any other qualifier, Asia is a one horse race.
Like Asia, there isn’t too much doubt who will step up to claim the Africa slot. Barring a catastrophic season that sees South Africa missing a top four finish in the World Series, this spot will go to Kenya. Outside of the exciting Kenyan team, only Zimbabwe and Tunisia have even seen meaningful time on the international stage. As exciting as Zimbabwe and Tunisia can be when they sneak into a series event, nothing trumps the experience of a core team with the focus and history of Kenya. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Zimbabwe pulled the shocking upset, but it would leave many a jaw on the floor. I still remember the Zimbabwe team that claimed the bowl in the 2009 World Cup including a win over Ireland 17-14 in an exciting game This slot goes to Kenya.
Of course, if South Africa misses the top four and joins Kenya in seeking the Africa slot, this could get exciting. It seems unimaginable for the Springboks to be left competing in the repechage, but it is far from impossible.
Unless England misses the World Series qualification, the face of Europe will be drastically changed from what we see in the series. England, Wales, and Scotland will already be in. This leaves Europe with four real contenders: France, Spain, Portugal, and Russia. The smart money is on France, one of only eight teams to ever snag a cup win on tour. As I’ve indicated before, when in doubt, go with the nation with the deepest talent pool. The Olympic aspect changes the landscape drastically. Players that wouldn’t be caught dead on the series, dream of Olympic gold. To that end, Spain, Portugal, and Russia are left in the dust if France can open the vault on its talent pool. That said, don’t count the other three out just yet.
Back in 2009, Portugal managed a silver medal in the World Games, falling to powerhouse Fiji but finishing ahead of South Africa and Argentina. Portugal also benefits from core status on the series and, unlike its Iberian neighbor, managed to avoid relegation. Portugal has also been the absolute master of Europe’s Sevens Grand prix series claiming 8 of 12 titles, including a 2011 title that saw them best England—an absentee from the series until that season and the back-to-back defending champion since. Nevertheless, the Russians have not been entirely silent in Europe. They have claimed two grand prix titles; most recently in 2009.
Spain, despite relegation, at least has the experience of a year on the series. Nevertheless, Spain will go home faster from contending for the Olympics than it did from the FIFA World Cup this year. Can they compete? Sure. Will they? Probably not.
If England misses a top four World Series finish, chalk them in. Wales, the shock 2009 World Cup champions and Scotland could easily oust the English, but the effect would remain the same. Great Britain will be in the Olympics, and France will likely be alongside.
Darkhorses: Ireland, Italy, and Georgia.
The Gerogian style of play is a far cry from the speed in international sevens, nevertheless, they have managed three top three finishes in the grand prix. But what sets Italy and Ireland apart is the talent pool. Neither team has been a noise maker in sevens play, but that is before the Olympics. Ireland hasn’t been a force in sevens since grabbing a third place finish in the inaugural World Cup in 1993, and have only etched out two series points all-time in World Series play. Still, if the likes of Rob Kearney and Jonathan Sexton decide to jump in, its hard to imagine that the Irish won’t be a hard out. The same is true of Italy. Just too many talented players to not be able to be more than a speed bump.
North America: Canada
More than any other qualifier, this one is up in the air. The Eagles, an ever resilient team will be fighting with the neighbors to the north for the lone North American slot. The winner of the North American Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) competition will punch its ticket to Rio. The loser will be lumped into a rough repechage. After three straight NACRA Sevens wins, Guyana has yielded to back-to-back Canadian champions. Canada is a nation on the rise, having finished 6th in the 2013-14 World Series and managing to make the finals in Scotland. Add that to a surprise Gold beating out Argentina in the 2011 Pan Am Games and Canada is the clear favorite to claim yet another NACRA title and with it the North American spot.
Don’t count the Eagles out just yet. The North America and West Indies Rugby Association (NAWIRA) Sevens—the precursor to NACRA—saw the Eagles twice take the cup title to clinch a World Cup bid in 04 and 08. Let us start with the 2011 Pan Am Games, in which the USA dropped both matches against Canada by a eight points in prelims and a missed conversion in the knockout rounds, Canada has dominated the series. Counting those two wins, Canada boasts a 10-3 record. Only four of those wins were more than one score away from seeing a different result. Though, one of those four was a 41-7 slobber-knocking in Dubai. But the Eagles have been able to keep most matches close, and the three wins were 28-15, 26-12, and 33-17. The Eagles lose close, but they win big. The odds are in the Canadian’s favor, but Yankee grit may see them scale the cliffs.
Ironically, despite the heated rivalry, the Eagles best bet at qualifying for Rio is to hope that the Canadians’ meteoric rise continues and they sneak a top four finish, clearing the NACRA road.
Who wins the single most talented region? It depends on who is left out of the IRB top 4. As noted above, if Australia and Samoa fall into needing to battle for qualification, the winner is an absolute pick’em. In theory, Tonga and Nieu have a history of playing exciting sevens, but neither should pose a real threat. The loser should be the prohibitive favorite to claim the repechage.
If Argentina doesn’t crack the IRB top four for the first time since 2003-04, Argentina will cruise through South America. The Argentines are one of only eight teams to claim an IRB tournament win; doing so twice—most recently in 2009. The same year, Argentina fell to Wales in the World Cup finals. Most recently, Argentina finished a disappointing 9th in the World Series, were a non-factor in the 2013 World Cup in Moscow, and were shocked by the surging Canadians in the 2011 Pan Am finals. Nevertheless, the only potential competition would come from Uruguay—the team that finally fell to the USA 22-19 in the 2011 Pan Am bronze medal game. Uruguay has not made any noise on the international stage since a shocking win over Kenya in its opening match of the 2009 USA Sevens—a Kenyan delegation that managed to scalp New Zealand and Samoa. Most recently, Uruguay was seen posting a mere 17 points in the 2013 World Cup; twelve from its knockout win over Tunisia. The team gave up 161 in five matches. Chalk Argentina in.
The final slot will be contested by many fresh faces on the international sevens scene, but very few pose a threat. The breakdown of spots in the competition are: Africa 3, Asia 3, Europe 4, NACRA 2, Oceania 2, South America 2.
Africa 3: Zimbabwe, Tunisia, & Namibia
Zimbabwe and Tunisia both managed to secure qualification to the 2013 World Cup; so should seem favorites to snag a bid out of Africa. If South Africa misses a top four World Series finish, then slot Kenya in here as the third. Barring that, Namibia is about the only other team I could imagine absent a throwback to Morocco, the Plate runner-up in the 1998 and 2002 HK7s.
Asia 3: Hong Kong, South Korea, & China
It wouldn’t seem right to not find Hong Kong competing for a shot at sevens rugby’s highest prize. Following the medal path of the 2010 Asia Games, count HK and South Korea to slot in to the repechage. The fourth spot, I have to put my money on China due to the resources.
Europe 4: Portugal, Russia, Ireland, & Spain
Conceding the Europe spot to France, that leaves Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Russia, Georgia, and Italy. Spain, Portugal, and Russia have easily the most sevens experience, but Ireland and Italy are my talent rich pool that can at least produce one team in the top five of Europe (France already grabbing the European bid). I don’t think it will be both. Given the Irish dominance over the Italians in XVs, they get my nod here.
NACRA 2: USA & Barbados
The USA or Canada (God willing) will make it out of NACRA to the Repechage. The second spot is up for grabs but will likely fall to Barbados or Trinidad & Tobago, the semi-finalists in the 2013 NACRA Sevens. The 2012 NACRA Sevens saw Mexico and Jamaica falling prey to American and Canadian dominance. T&T bested Barbados 17-12 in the same event to take the Plate. Barbados and T&T also managed to make an appearance in the World Series qualifiers in HK. Neither garnered a victory. To be fair, Mexico and Jamaica failed to find a win in the 2013 HK 7s. In 2012 Guyana similarly didn’t put up a W. It did manage to put a scare in Russia losing 14-12. So, who comes out as the NACRA 2? No clue, but Barbados just feels right.
Oceania 2: Australia & Tonga
Here we are again, is it Australia or Samoa that got the Oceania auto bid? I think we see Australia here. The remaining slot is up for grabs among Nieu, Cook Island, and Tonga. I give the nod to the experience of Tonga, but don’t be shocked for either of the other two to steal a date with an early exit in the repechage. Let’s also not forget the Philippines, they did qualify for the 2013 World Cup after all.
South America 2: Uruguay & Chile
Uruguay has been discussed at length, but the surprise to many might by Chile. Not that Chile isn’t the clear favorite here, just that we don’t follow South American rugby much in the North. Brazil managed to snag a spot ahead of Chile in the 2013 World Cup, but as they are already in, Chile will get its spot back and provide a speed bump for someone in the tournament.
So who wins? Who gets the last date with Rio? Australia.
Barring some talent rich Ireland or Italy jumping into the mix, rest assured that no non-core World Series team will be snaking this spot. That means: Australia, Portugal, and the USA are the teams to beat. The fact that the Eagles best showing in a major sevens tournament was a runner-up to Samoa in the 2010 Adelaide Sevens, gives Australia the strong nod. The Wallabies matched that mark twice in 2013-14 and have notched six tournament victories, winning London in 2010 and Tokyo in 2012.
There are only three paths for the Eagles to make Rio: a top 4 World Series finish, a NACRA win, or surviving repechage. The first option is unrealistic; the second, it’ll come down to one game. In theory the repechage could yield an Olympic birth, but the reality is that the odds are long. The best shot for the Eagles is for Canada to sneak into the top 4, a tough pill to swallow. What we will likely see is one twenty minute match that’ll decide who take the cup from the NACRA Sevens and who will have a hope to lift a medal in Rio. With the ouster of Coach Hawkins, it was noted that the target is a podium finish in Rio. Step one is qualification, and even that seems problematic.
Here's hoping. USA! USA! USA!