Brilliant spectacle, but is the repêchage really the best way to determine qualifiers for the Olympics?
Spain secured a trip to Rio with a surprise win last weekend in Monaco meaning World Series teams Samoa, Russia and Canada missed out
The repêchage has drama, intrigue and plenty of action, but is it really the best way to decide who should have the final spot in the Olympics?
There is no doubt that last weekend’s men’s event was a brilliant spectacle and Spain’s effort was remarkable.
But their victory – and the fact HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series teams Samoa, Russia and Canada went home empty handed – makes one wonder if the set-up is flawed.
The most important thing is that the best teams are in the Olympics, but this is not always the case due to the nature of the regional qualifying and that the host nation is ensured of a spot.
The qualifying format – which saw the top four teams from the 2014-15 world series guaranteed of a berth - seems to work pretty well on the whole, with 11 of the top 12 men’s team on this year’s world series represented in Rio.
The women’s numbers are a little less, with only nine of the top 12 heading to Rio, but with the repechage still to come.
Would it not be ideal to then make sure the next best team in this year’s world series not yet qualified is guaranteed that last spot?
A safety net of sorts to avoid anomalies like Samoa, a seriously good side who has missed out?
While the repechage has its benefits in engaging the fans and creating interest, the world series, which requires consistency over a number of rounds – 10 for the men and five for the women – would seem to be a better way to judge who is worthy of an Olympic berth.
If finishing order in this year’s world series had been used to decide, Samoa would have indeed been off to Rio, as would Russia in the women’s competition.
Of course, there will always be the argument that ‘if you’re not good enough to win the repechage, you don’t deserve to be in the Olympics’.
But a team that has performed well through an entire world series season and finished ninth overall seems more deserving than a team who rode their luck and pinched a win in the repechage.
Instead, Samoa – a team that won the Paris Sevens just last month – miss out and World Rugby miss out on the chance to have the very best sevens teams on show on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
One person who certainly won’t be subscribing to this view ahead of the weekend’s women’s event is Hong Kong coach Anna Richards.
“You have got to be in it to win it” was one of the thoughts Richards offered before she and her team left for Dublin.
The quote probably doesn’t do justice to her optimism – Richards goes into the event with a genuine confidence, even if she is a little unsure how her charges will go against the likes of HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series core teams Spain, Russia and Ireland.
It is a phrase used often is sport, mostly by teams or individuals who perhaps know they need a bit of luck and everything to go their way to come out on top.
The beauty of sport, and in particular sevens, is that anything can happen and the current repechage system certainly gives the underdog a fighting chance.
Spain’s effort last weekend exemplified Richards’ words perfectly – they were just in it on Saturday, but found something when it mattered.
Hong Kong must take some confidence out of seeing the unlikely actually materialise and will be hoping lightning strikes twice when they attempt to secure an unexpected spot at Rio.
They will obviously have to do a lot more than just be ‘in it’ if they are to win it, but are not without a chance if, like Spain, the seas part for them.
They kick off the tournament in a similar way to the men, with winnable matches against Argentina, Kazakhstan and Cook Islands in pool D.
If they do manage to progress – not a certainty given a history of willing battles against both Argentina and Kazakhstan – they cross to a tough pool A for finals action.
World series seventh-place finishers Russia head that group, while Samoa and Zimbabwe are also there and are no slouches.
But a quarter-final berth against either Samoa or Zimbabwe would indeed be winnable for Hong Kong and from there, who knows?
Maybe they can make the most of a system that really does give everybody a chance.