Olympic qualifying
Boots and all

Olympic repêchage is so late in the day it leaves the winning team little time to prepare for Rio

The repêchage – the last-chance saloon for the 16 teams involved – if held earlier would have given the winners the opportunity to play against the best as the invited team on the World Series

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 5:53pm

Hong Kong will be one of 16 teams fighting it out in Monaco next weekend for the final spot in the sevens competition at the Rio Olympics.

That’s right – 16 teams, one winner.

Reality has it that there is probably only three teams that are good enough to win the repêchage – 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series participants Samoa, Russia and Canada.

The increased level of competition these teams have been exposed to playing on the global circuit gives them a massive advantage over the other 13 teams.

On recent form you could almost safely trim that to one, with Samoa absolutely flying after winning the second last leg of the series in Paris.

Let that sink in for a minute.

They actually won a round of the series, defeating eventual overall champions and clear Olympic favourites Fiji in the final.

To put the enormity of that achievement into perspective, the best Canada and Russia could manage throughout the year was a ninth and eleventh place finish respectively.

But, as is the way in sport, every team will enter the competition full of optimism in the knowledge that rugby sevens doesn’t always follow the script.

Spain, Germany, Zimbabwe, Tonga and Hong Kong will all give themselves a chance and, as is bandied about constantly in this game, just about anything can happen in a 14-minute game of sevens.

The most important thing of all is that there is an Olympic berth on the line for the team that comes out on top.

However, the winner is set to face a significant disadvantage to the 11 teams who have already qualified.

Those 11 teams have known since at least last November that they were going to Rio – some since as far back as the end of the 2014-15 world series last May and hosts Brazil since way back in 2009.

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Each of the 16 teams in the repêchage has known for a similarly long time that they had one final crack at achieving their Olympic dream.

Which poses the question – why wait so long to hold the event and leave the eventual winner less than two months to prepare?

No doubt scheduling has been tight with the expanded world series, but this is the Olympics – the world’s single biggest sporting event.

It’s also rugby’s first appearance at the Games since 1924 and surely it is in the best interests of the sport that the 12th team is given every chance to be competitive.

Samoa coach Damian McGrath told World Rugby earlier in the year that he’s “happy to lose every single leg of the series if we qualify for the Olympics”.

Surely they could have squeezed the repêchage in during the world series to allow the winner to shift their focus from qualifying for the Olympics to actually playing in them.

If what McGrath had to say is anything to go by, Samoa, Russia and Canada certainly wouldn’t have minded.

If the winner does somehow happen to be from outside of the world series, holding the repechage earlier would have given them the opportunity to play against the best as the invited team.

Brazil and Japan, the two qualified teams not in the top flight, got this opportunity at various times throughout the competition and will be better for it.

Getting through what shapes as a brutal two-day fight to the death in Monaco is

one thing; getting Rio ready in under eight weeks is another thing altogether.

While the top teams have been able to use the lure of the Olympics to coax 15s stars into the sevens set-up, the rest have experienced months and months of waiting.

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Also, any potential added funding an Olympic berth may draw will be too late to be of much use.

If there are any benefits of it being so close, perhaps they are that the intensity of the competition and the buzz of making it through will hold the victor in good stead.

One side that is set to benefit handsomely from the 16-side repechage, which in itself seems excessive considering there can only be one winner, is Hong Kong.

Win or lose – they should at least get as far as the quarter-finals after drawing Spain, Mexico and South Korea in pool D –Hong Kong should take plenty out of the tournament.

The further they can progress, the more of those much-desired matches against quality opposition they will get.

Hong Kong will also get another chance to measure themselves against the level required to make it on to the world series.

No one expects them to win, but another good performance will see the momentum behind Hong Kong rugby increase a little more.

Who knows, maybe playing in a tournament without Japan will allow them to flourish.