Hong Kong Sevens

England and Australia set course for Rio

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2012, 12:00am

Great Britain v Australia: it's one of the great sporting rivalries and perhaps nowhere more so than at the Olympics. From 2016, sevens gets added to the Games mix, and the two nations are taking different paths as they target gold in Rio.

England, who will likely comprise the bulk of Team GB in Brazil, have committed more resources to the sport than any other nation in recent years. Their great rivals still see it as a pathway to 15s rather than a specialised sport. It's an unusual point of view for a great Olympic nation, but there are stirrings of dissent.

This month Australian James O'Connor, a former Hong Kong Sevens star, became the first high-profile 15s international to show where his priorities lie, making it plain he would sacrifice a test spot for the Games: 'The Olympics would be an unbelievable honour ... 100 per cent I want to be involved in the sevens programme for 2016,' he said.

There are no such difficult choices for England's GB hopefuls, with the Rugby Football Union offering full-time contracts to sevens players.

'Last year there were a few things off the field happening that affected a few players but now that we all know where we stand in the team and, to be honest, in English rugby we have this new ethos about us now where we're doing a job that we all love,' said England winger Matt Turner, who gave up a club 15s career at Bristol to become one of the sevens series' most dangerous players.

'There was a lot of change happening within sevens itself as a whole with the Olympics and players now have to decide whether they want to do 15s or sevens.

'James O'Connor has said stuff over Twitter he doesn't care where he is, he wants to play in the Olympics, so it can only go one way, it's going to get bigger and bigger. There will be specialist sevens players by the Olympics, there has to be, and with the extra drive to win a gold medal it's going to be massive.

'You might not get the gold medal, everyone can't win, but to experience an Olympics which not many people get to do in their lifetime - it's an amazing career choice.'

Teammate Tom Mitchell, a sevens series debutant this year, agrees: 'The Olympics sort of seems a long way down the line, but it's not that far off and it'll come around quickly - I think it's in the back of minds of a few of the players on the circuit. It would be the dream of any player to play in the Olympics.

'Since the full-time contracts have come in it's a real option for young guys coming up as a career path. Now they're offering one- or two-year contracts it's something to aim for and it's a lifestyle that's obviously very appealing. You get to travel, you get to play the game you love and you get paid a decent amount to do it, so as far as I'm concerned it's the ideal scenario.'

You feel some of Australia's sevens players would love to be in that position, with their team hit by constant turnover.

'Now that the Olympics is on the horizon there's going to be more kids staying for [it],' says Jordan Tuapou, a 21-year-old hooker making his Hong Kong debut this week. 'We've got kids in our team who are 17, 18 who could be looking at an Olympic place if they stick it, but it's hard to say because Super Rugby teams can just jump on board and sign them like that. So hopefully they stay and keep the talent coming through.

'Kids these days are coming through sevens and going straight to Super Rugby. Where the likes of New Zealand can hold their sevens players for five years so, that's probably been a bit of a struggle for us, but now it's become an Olympic sport hopefully Australia can hold their players for a bit longer.'

Australia coach Michael O'Connor has talked about trying to build for the Games, but he can only dream of the kind of backing his England counterpart, Ben Ryan, receives.

Tipped as a Clive Woodward in the making at the outset of his coaching career, the 40-year-old now admits the attraction of 15s has waned.

'The Olympics is massive,' he says. 'It's night and day to how it was when I took over the programme. I used to meet lads at the airport for the first time as we flew out somewhere; now guys have been on conditioning programmes for the past 18 months and are working tirelessly night and day to play sevens.

'In the RFU it's gone from almost being taken totally out of the programme to being the number one focus for the programme for next year - and that's across the board, from what we're doing in our schools and clubs to communities - it's just taken off beyond all recognition and the RFU is 100 per cent behind it.

'When I took on the job [in 2007] I wanted to do well but it was a very tough environment to get any consistency. I did think 'couple of years then I'll go back to 15s', but six years on now you realise that to really build a proper culture and a proper team it doesn't happen overnight.

'Now we know it's not going to change because we've got the full backing of the RFU for everything we do and on the field I can start to put together a system because I know I'm going to consistently have the same group of players.

'As a coach it's really enjoyable. I love it and my desire to go back to 15s isn't as great as it was when I started six years ago. I still think I probably will at some point but at the moment I can't get enough of sevens.'

Michael O'Connor can only look on in envy, although a sponsorship deal signed with Qantas at the start of this year could perhaps be the first sign Australian attitudes are changing. 'If we are to become a serious medal contender for the Olympics in 2016, we have to try and hold onto players and be able to compete with what they'd be able to get if they went and played Super 15,' O'Connor said at the announcement of that deal.

'It won't be a case of just picking Wallabies in 2016 for an end-of-season crack at a gold medal. These guys will need to have played a couple of years and have 20-30 tournaments under their belt. There is no substitute for experience.'

And, when it comes to British-Aussie bragging rights, no substitute for medals. Whose approach will pay off? We'll find out in four years.'