The qualifying process for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in one of the Games’ newest sports, sevens rugby, begins this weekend with the first round of the World Series on Australia’s Gold Coast.
The Australian tournament, today and tomorrow, is the first of nine legs of the IRB world series, at the end of which the four top-ranked teams will qualify to play in Rio de Janiero along with hosts Brazil.
The New Zealand team started strongly by winning the Gold Coast tournament last year and carried on to win the overall series for the 12th time in 15 years, topping the rankings ahead of South Africa, Fiji and England.
The admission of sevens to the Olympic Games has led rugby’s leading players, many of whom have previously only played the 15-a-side game, to make themselves available for the shortened form in the hope of competing for a gold medal in Rio.
The International Rugby Board has also amended eligibility regulations to allow players who may have played internationally for one nation to return to the nation of their birth for the Olympic tournament. That amendment especially favors Pacific nations — Fiji, Samoa and Tonga — whose leading players often earn their livings in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Those considerations add intrigue to this season’s sevens series. New Zealand start as the favorites, but the odds at stake are higher than in any previous world series.
“We, like every other team, want to start with a bang,” New Zealand captain D.J. Forbes said. “Everyone knows how important this series will be with so much at stake and that will impact every tournament.”
“The Olympics is at the back of our minds, like everyone else, but we know to have a chance at qualifying we need to do the basics and tick the boxes along the way,” he said.
Australia reached the Gold Coast final last year and went on to finish fifth in the world standings, which, if repeated this year, would make their road to Rio more difficult.
Head coach Geraint John has taken the step of discouraging his players from discussing Olympic implications this early in the season.
“Clearly the more success you have on the field the more points you gain and hopefully by the end of the year we will be in the top four,” John said. “The time to start talking about that, though, is at the end of May. We’re not there yet, as I keep telling people. Our focus has to be on what we can do on a day-to-day basis.”
New Zealand play in Pool A on the Gold Coast with Samoa, France and Japan; Australia are in a difficult Pool C with Fiji, Scotland and Portugal; England face Canada, Argentina and the US in Pool D; while South Africa head Pool B, which includes Kenya, Wales and American Samoa.
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