Fiji fear Olympic 'lockout'
Fiji coach Alifereti Dere has voiced concerns over the qualifying process for sevens' debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics, saying it should be judged on performance levels at the annual HSBC Sevens World Series, and not just on regional qualification.
Dere has received support from New Zealand counterpart Gordon Tietjens who said the top six teams in the world series standings in 2015 should automatically qualify for the Olympics.
The views of the two southern hemisphere giants don't match the process in the other major team sport at the Olympics, soccer, where all teams have to qualify other than the host nation.
This week's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens has long been the holy grail for Fiji rugby but it will soon have to share the limelight with the Olympics and Dere is concerned at how the IOC and the International Rugby Board will work out the qualifying process.
'I hope they can take into account that most of the leading teams in sevens come from Oceania,' Dere said. 'The best teams should be at the Olympics, but if it is a regional qualification then we have a lot of good teams like New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, so it is a concern for us as to how the qualification process will work,' said Dere, who took over the coaching reins last November. 'Olympic qualification should be based on performance levels.'
New Zealand mastermind Tietjens agreed, saying: 'For me the Olympics is all about having the best teams taking part. I believe the top six teams in the world series in 2015 should qualify automatically and you can have a qualifying process for the remaining slots.'
The IRB has yet to announce how the qualifying process will pan out, but one thing is certain - there are only 12 spots available with the IOC sticking to the format for other team sports. The same number will take part in the women's rugby competition too.
Luca Liussi, Australia team manager, agreed it would be hard going for teams from Oceania if only regional qualification was the criterion for the Olympics. 'It will be tough to get through and potentially some of the teams that have consistently been some of the best in the world may miss out. But from what I understand there's going to be a top two or top four in the 2015 series which will qualify so you'd like to finish in that top four and miss the regional qualification - if that is the plan, we're obviously still not sure,' Liussi said.
'I think it probably happens in a lot of sports that we're not involved in - all the other qualifiers I believe are in regions, so I guess people are always going to miss out. You've got to perform on the day. I don't think the IOC or IRB can really favour teams to go through, that's not in the team spirit, but there has to be some way to make sure that the best teams in the world are competing in the Olympic Games,' Liussi said.
At the quadrennial Rugby World Cup Sevens, the IRB makes room for all eight quarter-finalists at the previous tournament - which means teams like Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Samoa all gain automatic qualification - and carries out regional qualifiers around the world to make up the rest of the field. But they have this luxury of extra numbers with the men's tournament being a 24-team event. The next World Cup will be held in Moscow next year.
In soccer, the World Cup and the Olympics are decided solely on regional qualifications. But in this case, Australia is not part of Oceania any more, having joined the Asian Football Confederation. The rest of Oceania battle it out amongst themselves with the winner entering a home-and-away play-off against an Asian team to usually decide who will move on to the World Cup or Olympics.
It is most likely a mix of methods will be used to decide the 12 teams, for both men and women for Rio 2016 - including regional qualification as well as performance at the annual world series. While Fiji will pray for that, England and the rest of the Home Unions face another problem at the Olympics - how best to field a united team under the banner of Great Britain.
Fiji, who arrived on Monday night, began the season winning the Gold Coast Sevens in Australia but have since failed to replicate that magic. 'We have decided on a combination of five forwards and sevens backs after weaknesses we felt we needed to address in the last couple of tournaments,' Dere said. 'This new-look team boasts pace and experience and very mobile forwards we believe can do well,' Dere said.