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Hope for Olympic Gold

Ny Times
Sunday, May 27, 2012

WELLINGTON - It would make an excellent quiz question: Who is the reigning Olympic Games rugby champion? It is likely that not many people know the answer is the United States.

In 1924 in Paris, the US men won the gold by virtue of defeating France and Romania, who collected the silver and bronze medals. (Only three countries played.)

Not long after, rugby was removed from the Olympic program. However, in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, rugby — in its shortened sevens format — will return to the world's biggest sporting event, and both men's and women's teams are set to compete.

The rugby landscape now is a vastly different one from those Summer Games almost a century ago.

For starters, the sport is no longer played just for "fun."

The majority of players competing in the highest echelons are paid to do so, and that is beginning to extend to the shortened, quicker format, where more and more countries are putting extra resources into their sevens squads.

England, New Zealand and South Africa have had their sevens players under contract for several years now, and teams like Australia, France and Wales are also choosing to go that route now that there is the prospect of claiming Olympic gold.

U.S.A. Rugby has taken the ground-breaking step of awarding several of its players professional contracts for the first time.

Since the start of this year, 11 male and 7 female players have had contracts, funded by the US Olympic Committee, to train full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. Their goal: Win in Rio de Janeiro.

Of the 11 men, 4 were members of the U.S. squad that competed at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Winger Colin Hawley is one of those. "It's a huge improvement from what we had before. I just think this will do so much more for our team and for us as a rugby-playing country," he said.

Being surrounded at Chula Vista by successful Olympians - who are now in the final months of preparation before the London Games in July - has already started to rub off on the rugby players, who were more used to juggling jobs and studies with their training and playing schedules.

"They've got a goal, and they are setting their minds to it," Hawley said.

"You can tell by their work ethic and their attitude every single day being there, this is a lifestyle. This is the choice to do something great, and you've just got to buy into it."

While his contract will mean Hawley concentrates predominantly on sevens rugby and competing in the HSBC Sevens World Series, he still has aspirations to play at another World Cup.

The next one is in England in 2015. But he admitted if he had to choose between England or Rio, the choice would be easy.

"Every person's dream is to be an Olympian," he said.

"I think I would have to lean that way, but hopefully it wouldn't come to that.

"Hopefully we can work things out and the American players can play at both."

As with all professional sports, with payment comes pressure to perform, and the U.S. sevens coach, Al Caravelli, has clear targets for his team over the next four years.

"Our goal at the end of this season is to be in the top eight," said Caravelli, whose team currently sits at 13th in the World Series standing.

"By 2015 we want to be in the top four in the series so that come 2016, we achieve a gold medal."

It is a lofty ambition for a country that has yet to fully embrace rugby.

And there is another challenge: Like the United States, other countries are now investing more time and money in sevens rugby because it is an Olympic sport.

New Zealand has been a powerhouse in both forms of the game for decades. But even it realizes that changes to the way it runs its sevens squad are inevitable.

Players currently are contracted for the duration of the world sevens series, which runs from November through to May. They also have separate contracts with provincial unions in New Zealand that cover the domestic 15-a-side competition played from late August to late October.

But the New Zealand sevens coach, Gordon Tietjens, who has taken his side to four Commonwealth Games gold medals, says that as sevens rugby becomes more physically demanding and the number of tournaments in the world series expands, players will not be able to do both.

"Looking down the track, I think players are taking sevens seriously and they see it as a career path," he said.

"I know we'll have a couple of extra world series tournaments from next year. There just won't be time.

"We see the physical nature of sevens now, and I don't think the body will hold up to playing 15s and also sevens."

The series this year comprised nine tournaments, with Tokyo having been added to the program.

Next year, that number will increase to 10, with another tournament proposed for South America, most likely in Argentina.

There will also be an increase in the number of core teams that compete at every tournament in the world series from 12 to 15 next year.

But perhaps the biggest shift in sevens rugby is occurring in the women's game.

In Dubai late last year, the first IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup took place.

The next one is in Hong Kong in March and will again be run alongside the men's world series event. A third is tentatively scheduled for London in May.

Beth Coalter, the International Rugby Board's sevens manager, said the aim was to have a minimum of four women's tournaments in the 2012-13 season, leading into the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Russia, which will see 24 men's teams and 16 women's teams competing in 2013.

That tournament will be the first real barometer for the women's game before Rio and will see the teams given rankings from 1 to 16.

"It's unfair that they don't get the opportunity to compete at an international level before they get to Rugby World Cup Sevens," Coalter said.

"They need to be able to have that opportunity."

Coalter is realistic enough to know that running the women's tournaments in tandem with the men's is necessary to give the women's game exposure.

"If it was a women's tournament standing on its own, broadcasters wouldn't be that interested until the level of the women's game gets up to be as competitive as the men's is," she said.

Canada is leading the charge at the moment.

It won the Challenge Cup in Dubai and defeated the US team in the final of an invitational tournament that coincided with the men's world series tournament in Las Vegas earlier this month.

Surprisingly, New Zealand, where rugby is the national sport, is only now beginning its search for players with Olympic aspirations, hoping to assemble a squad by the end of the year.

Aimee Sutorius, who played for the successful New Zealand 15-a-side women's team, the Black Ferns, has switched her focus to sevens.

"I've got one focus, and that's a gold medal," she said.

Neil Sorensen, the New Zealand Rugby Union general manager for professional sport, is not concerned that other countries, like Canada and the United States, already have a head start.

"We think we have an advantage because rugby is in our blood in New Zealand," he said

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