Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
If you’re a fan of rugby and eagerly anticipating the return of the sport at the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, then it really is a long ways off. If you’re one of the many countries hoping to take home a medal in rugby (men and/or women) at the 2016 Olympics, the planning has already begun.
The Olympic qualifying process is a long and arduous process regardless of the sport. Rugby will not be any different with as many as 100 countries vying for a meager twelve spots in the Olympics.
Twelve seems like an odd number for a rugby tournament, but it is the Olympic standard for almost all of the team sports.
Even basketball, an immensely popular Olympic sport, is played with just twelve teams. Soccer seems to be the exception to the rule. As the worlds largest sport, it has likely earned the right through the fervor of its fanbase and supporters. Basketball is currently in the early stages of making their case for expanding the Olympic field of teams and they have been an Olympic sport since 1936.
So, the number of rugby teams participating in the Olympics is highly unlikely to increase before 2020. Better to come to grips with it now.
With just twelve spots open, the qualifying process could start as early as 2013 and most likely in 2014, which is just around the corner for most participating unions.
The Olympics recognize five qualifying regions and rugby will presumably use those regions for their qualifying process. Each region will produce at least one Olympic bid, with the probability that some will end up providing two bids.
Using the Olympic basketball qualifying process as a model, here’s how it might shape up.
That is a total of nine spots sewn up out of the gate. Getting to that point will involve a series of qualifying tournaments within each of those five regions.
One thing that is absolutely certain is that the qualifying process is going to be difficult. Look no further than Oceania for any indication. Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, and Cook Islands all in the same region with only two spots open. That qualifier is going to be intense.
Seems pretty unfair… right? All of those great teams in one region while other regions may come in a bit light. Diversity is part of the Olympic mantra and they’ve been clear that they prefer diversity over quality in some cases.
All is not lost though. If rugby mirrors the other Olympic sports, then teams just missing out on qualification at the regional level will get another shot through a World Qualifying Tournament which will likely bring in the top sixteen teams that have not already qualified for one last chance at the last three open Olympic spots.
Talk about excitement!
For the USA, their road to the Americas qualifying tournament should be fairly easy, if not automatic. Think of their qualifying process to get into the recent 7’s World Cup which consisted of a qualifying tournament against teams from the Caribbean nations.
Once they reach the regional championship tournament, the battle is going to be between the USA, Argentina, and Canada for the possible bids. If the region provides two bids, then the USA has a pretty good shot at avoiding the World Qualifying Tournament. If only one bid comes out of the Americas, then the drama level goes up tenfold.
The USA and Canada have closed the gap with their South American counterparts when it comes to 7’s. Expect that gap to be almost non-existent in the next few years. So, winning the Olympic bid is far from given for the Argentinean team.
No team will want to go through the World Qualifying Tournament as it will mean going through Oceania teams that don’t qualify for their regional bids. This makes it vital for teams like the USA and Canada to win early qualification.
Once teams actually reach the Olympics, the tournament will likely have a different look. If rugby also takes note from basketball in the actual Olympic tournament, the twelve teams will be divided into two pools of six teams. Each team play each one of their pool opponents once with the top four teams from each pool moving onto the quarterfinals. After that, you win or your medal hopes are crushed.
It’s not the tournament setup that rugby fans have become accustomed to, but it’s not that bad either. What it lacks in number of teams will be made up for with drama.
Taking all of this into account, it’s hard not to take a stab at predicting the 2016 Olympic field. After all, it is still six years away and some nations are going to step up their rugby operations between now and the qualifying tournaments. The teams that are top dog right now may very well find themselves under pressure in a few years. All of which is great for the sport of rugby and for the Olympics.
But, hey… what fun is waiting? The fun will be looking back at this in a few years and seeing how close I came in my predictions.
Here’s how the field may look come 2016.
That’s a pretty competitive field. Of the twelve teams, only Brazil is currently not among the Top 10 7’s teams in the World. With the pressure to perform as hosts, Brazil may get up to speed fast.
The United Kingdom side will be very interesting to watch to see how the players mesh together.
Other teams that are also going to be in the picture are Canada, China, France, Tunisia, Portugal, and don’t forget about Ireland. The proud rugby nation has avoided 7’s for the most part, but could put together a team that could challenge. Without many Olympic medals to their name, Ireland could put the press on with their eyes on Gold.
The intriguing side story to the entire Olympics will be seeing how many big names turn out for 7’s in the hope of representing their country in the Olympics and if they will supercede 7’s specialists.
It’s going to be a great time. Too bad Chicago laid an egg on their 2016 Olympic bid. It would have been amazing to have it on home soil.