For the last several years the mantra around sevens has been specialization, specialization, and specialization. Any sevens coach or player you talked to would go on and on about how sevens players needed to only focus on 7s if the teams wanted to get better and have a shot at winning the Olympics and for the most part they’ve been right. As we’ve seen, teams like Australia and Canada, who have instituted big Olympic programs that emphasize sevens specialty have bee climbing in the IRB Sevens Series standings. Both Australia and Canada were consistent threats for the top four this last season.
The reason for preaching specialization was simple. There are enough differences between 15s and sevens to make it hard for players to make the immediate transfer. Sevens is a game of speed and if that means you are a flanker in 15s but a prop in sevens you made need to lose a few pounds in favor of quickness. However, that also means you lose some of your effectiveness in 15s. For a long time it wasn’t possible to do that because paychecks came from 15s and not sevens but as more and more countries started full-time professional sevens programs they saw the immediate benefits.
However, now only two years away from the Olympics and with qualifying starting in just a few months the IRB is making a big push to get more stars from 15s into the sevens game. To do that they’ve made it possible for players to switch nationalities and they’ve instituted regulation nine for the Series. Without question this is going to have a major impact but just how much of an impact is yet to be seen.
Already there are strong rumors that Sonny Bill Williams will be turning out for New Zealand. Bryan Habana is already going to be playing in the Commonwealth Games with South Africa and may be a good target during the Series. Wales is also likely to bring in a few of their stars. These editions are going to change the game one way or another.
Adding a player like Bryan Habana or Sonny Bill Williams is going to increase the skill level on a team. Both are world-class players that would instantly be considered the best players on the IRB Sevens Series. However, both would be joining the two teams already considered the best. It’s entirely possible that despite their skill playing a non-sevens specialist like Habana or Williams could throw off the team’s rhythm. Although a sevens player may not have the same skill level you could argue that in a pure sevens sense they are a better player. Plus, any player that still has 15s duty during the week is not going to be able to train with their teammates. Sevens is also about chemistry.
Where the change will likely have the bigger impact is with smaller nations, specifically the Pacific Islands. Many on the Islands grow up playing sevens so going back and forth is a little easier for them. Yes, they still have the issues of toning their bodies for sevens but in terms of rhythm and flow of play they have the upper hand. If countries like Fiji, Samoa, and others can get their overseas stars available for the sevens series it will raise the overall level.
At the same time, it could force out teams that have been specializing on sevens. For example, the U.S. has had players in residency for a couple of years but have only seen marginal success. It’s unlikely that they would be willing, or want to, bring in their overseas players and jeopardize not only chemistry but those players contracts. For them having other nations bring in their better players erases almost any hope they would have of knocking off a top team.
It all has to be played out but it’s interesting that the IRB is willing to change the game at this point in favor of star power. There is no question that the Olympics will have a positive impact on rugby. You can’t blame the IRB for wanting to make a better product, which it probably will be in the end, but at the same time you have to wonder if the new rules will squeeze out lower nations. For a long time sevens was seen as a way for countries like Kenya, the U.S., and Portugal to compete with more traditional rugby nations. If that goes away then it could blow and opportunity to bring the game to new fans.