This past weekend NBC hosted four hours of the USA Rugby Collegiate Sevens Championship over Saturday and Sunday. Throughout that time the commentators discussed the history of rugby in the U.S. and in the Olympic games, taking pains to point out that the U.S. are the back-to-back and current gold medal holders in Olympic Rugby. There was plenty of talk of the U.S. defending the medals in Rio in 2016, and how the team needs to be looking for players now to compete in 2016.
During the broadcast this weekend, an unsettling idea kept creeping into my head. With all of the talk of the USA at the Olympics, there was a presumption that the U.S. will qualify for the Olympics.
I’m sure most of you are thinking,
“The U.S.? Not Qualify? What blasphemy is this?”
But let’s take a look at the situation:
As I understand it, 12 men’s teams will qualify for 2016. That’s it. If we look at the final standings for the HSBC World Sevens Series and use that as a baseline for the Olympic seedings, you have the U.S. squeaking in at #12.
Now there is no reason to expect that the Olympic Selection team will take just the top 12 from either listing. For all of their faults, the Olympics do right by demanding that each region have at least one team in the Games. (yet another reason that Sevens was selected over full Rugby Union or Rugby League).
Let’s focus on North America, which will probably only receive one regional slot. At first glance the U.S. appears set to make the qualifiers, being ranked #12 in the Sevens World Series standings. But only 5 points separates them from Canada, which does appear to have more of a rugby foundation than the U.S. (judging by recent 15s results, and organizational ability). They might begin to focus more on Olympic rugby the closer 2016 gets.
Then there are the smaller North American teams. Mexico, which made their first Olympic Rugby appearance in a few year, might continue to make strides in the game, and as we have seen in the past sevens rugby is ripe for upsets – one misstep, one undisciplined yellow card can throw the game into new and interesting results.
West Indies, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Bahamas, Guyana, the Virgin Islands – all are considered minnows in the Rugby Universe, having never qualified for the World Cup. But given time each could find a dozen athletes willing to train repeatedly to prepare for 2016.
And they don’t need to be world-beaters ready to beat New Zealand by 2016 to shift the Rugby Universe, all they need to do is be able to beat the U.S. or Canada.