Why Quade Cooper’s Rio Olympics snub showed the gulf that now separates sevens and 15s rugby

The 58-cap Wallaby had his dream dashed, and it seems unlikely that many stars from the ‘big’ code will be in action in Brazil

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 May, 2016, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 May, 2016, 4:48pm

A lot of the pre-Hong Kong Sevens hype last month focused on one man: New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams. A World Cup winner in 15s with the All Blacks, a star too in rugby league (and a half-decent heavyweight boxer just for good measure), it was a mouth-watering opportunity to see him in the flesh.

Not since the good ol’ pre-professionalism days, when most squads were packed with 15s greats willing to interrupt titanic drinking sessions with the odd game of sevens, had the tournament been graced with a bona fide superstar of the ‘big’ code. In the end, Sonny Bill was ... well ... sort of okay-bordering-on-not-great. Not that I’d say that to his face.

He won the heart of one family by giving a boy his runners-up trophy, and showed in flashes his tremendous tackling and offloading skill but, like his team, he was far from his best.

It was a reminder, not that we needed it, that 15s and sevens are completely different games now, with wildly different requirements in skills, fitness, tactics, etc, etc.

It’s a lesson Quade Cooper learned this week in painful fashion, as Australia’s coach announced that he wouldn’t be considering the 58-cap Wallaby for the Rio Olympics after a couple of unspectacular outings on the World Sevens Series.

“There’s no doubt Quade is a quality player, but put simply, we just haven’t had the opportunity to work with him as much as we would have liked over the past five months,” said Andy Friend.

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“Each day I have a group of 20-plus players working on different structures and patterns of play and I don’t think we would have got the very best out of Quade had we just thrown him into a tournament with limited preparation – particularly for an event as momentous as the Olympics.

“As many players have found out throughout this season’s World Series, it is no easy task to transition from 15s to the sevens form of the game.

“Although we are still a few months out from the Games, I think it offers the fairest outcome for everyone by making the call now. Quade can channel his energies into Toulon while we can enter the next phase of our preparations for Rio knowing the direction we want to take.”

Cooper played in Las Vegas and Vancouver and, like Sonny Bill, had his moments. But as Friend points out, if you’re not committed full-time to the game it’s too hard to make a serious impact.

And though Cooper claims he was actually dropped because he doesn't have an Australia passport, even that surely points to a lack of commitment – at some point since he left New Zealand, the country of his birth, aged 13 in 2001, maybe he could have applied for one?

Friend did stick with another 15s convert, Nick ‘Honey Badger’ Cummins, for the next sevens series tournament in Paris, presumably because he has been able to commit.

Cooper’s French club, Toulon, were none too impressed with his plan to combine Top 14 rugby with the World Series – and why should they have been, given they’re the ones stumping up perhaps 800,000 a year or more for his services?

Williams has been with the All Blacks Sevens team for the whole season, and has been named in Gordon Tietjens’ squad for the remaining two tournaments – which the coach has described as his Olympics trials. Given his commitment, you’d fancy Williams to make it to Rio, but equally it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t.

As for others, Bryan Habana is in with a good shout for South Africa – having made his name as a youngster in the short code – and France will have Viri Vakatawa, who moved to 15s for the Six Nations, immediately starred, then returned to sevens. Interestingly, L’Equipe reports that the French Rugby Federation are hoping to convince Vakatawa to sign an exclusive deal with them to fend off interest from Top 14 sides who wouldn’t want him playing sevens.

Elsewhere, Fiji have drafted four 15s pros for Paris and London, though they’re a different case, given that sevens is the ‘real’ game for most of their players.

Meanwhile, the gulf between the two codes continues to elude many. Much of the British press seemingly hasn’t noticed that they have a rugby team in the Olympics; some of those who have still seem convinced that coach Simon Amor will draft in a host of 15s stars when he names his squad this week – even though England, Wales and Scotland’s 15s teams are all on tour this summer.

“It would be very difficult to come in with no prior experience at this stage,” England sevens skipper Tom Mitchell said last week, perhaps surprised to have been asked the question. Maybe Amor will indeed call up George North, Danny Cipriani, Justin Tipuric and others who have been mentioned, but they – and those pundits – may be bemused to discover that sevens is a whole new oval-ball game.