Rugby Sevens will be in the global spotlight in August when the Rio Olympics gives the first run out for the sport. Rugby Sevens has seen its share of cross over athletes is about to get a new influx of potential players, this time from the XVs game.
Only 10 months after New Zealand lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy some of the leading players will compete for Olympic gold. This Royall Lyme article looks at some of the players looking to claim their place and the challenges they face crossing from XVs to 7s.
Differences between XVs and 7s
As expected the naming of some of rugby’s top stars in HSBC Sevens World Series squads has begun and they don’t come much bigger than Williams, Cooper and Habana. While all three players bring skills any team would welcome, their transition to rugby sevens will not be easy. Sevens is often used as a development tool in the top tier rugby nations with players progressing onto XVs. In developing rugby nations such as USA, the expansion of the HSBC World Series and particularly, the lure of the Olympics, has seen the game move forward significantly in recent years.
To excel at elite level, transitioning players will need to quickly adapt to the speed, physicality, endurance, and strength required for six 14-minute games spread over two days. Sevens rugby tests players through an intensity that XVs cannot match. Less players on the pitch means there is more space to attack but also more ground to cover in defense. Possession of the ball is key in sevens and defending is a lot more exhausting then attacking as the “new boys” are finding out.
Rugby World Cup Winner All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams
The ultimate cross-code athlete, Sonny Bill has enjoyed success at the highest level in Rugby Union, Rugby League, and boxing, and now he is going for gold in 7s. He gave himself a year to transition back from League to Union to claim his place in the 2015 Rugby World Cup winning side, a feat which also made him a back-to-back winner of that tournament.
Now he has 10 months to transition to an Olympian. While his talent is unquestionable and his ability to draw in defenders and offload is used to good effect by the All Blacks, it is clear he will have to readjust for rugby sevens.
NZ 7s coach Gordon Tietjens is quoted as saying Williams understanding of the game is improving and he is also developing physically “he’s probably more explosive than what he was in the past.” He may be developing as a player and athlete but Sonny Bill Williams’ advice to Quade Cooper to “buy a new set of lungs” may suggest even he is finding the high-energy game draining.
The hard work will all be worth it if Williams achieves his Olympic dream.
“The Olympics has always been a dream for me and I am pretty sure if you ask most of the boys, they knew what the Olympics were before they even knew what rugby or league was. The Olympics is the pinnacle of sport and the best sportsmen in the world have been to the Olympics, people like Mohammad Ali.
“I consider myself not just a rugby player or a rugby league player or a boxer but a sportsman so I would love to achieve that. It would supersede everything I have done because being an Olympian over-rides any team achievement in rugby or rugby league.”
The All Blacks have always had strength in depth and when Sonny Bill Williams was rested for Vegas his place in the squad was taken by Liam Messam. Not a bad player to bring off the bench.
Rugby World Cup Runner Up Wallabies’ Quade Cooper
— Quade Cooper (@QuadeCooper) February 7, 2016
Quade Cooper has returned to the Wallabies XVs squad under Michael Cheika but he didn’t play a leading role in the Australian team’s tilt at the RWC title. He’ll be hoping to prove himself as a starter for Australia’s Rugby Sevens Coach Andy Friend who has added the Toulon fly half to his squad for the HSBC Series as a playmaker but has yet to start him.
His build-up to Rio has been shortened to just five months (four tournaments) and some believe there are too few games for the player to learn the new format and systems. Fellow cross over star, South Africa’s Francois Hougaard believes the Australian can make the gamble pay off.
“Quade Cooper is a phenomenal athlete and he is the type of guy who adapts very quickly to any system. I think sevens has a lot of structure and the Australian team has a lot of structure but he’s the sort of guy that slots in quickly.
He’s a free-rein guy who has a lot of skills and can create for the team and the team can benefit a lot from him.”
Speaking to Fox Sports Quade Cooper explained his focus was fitness while he waited for his chance to play. “Sevens is very hard on the body so for me I’m just going to do as much fitness as I can and just prepare myself as well as possible.”
Quade’s reading of the game and legendary footwork could be a major asset in Rio but he can be inconsistent at times and we must wait to see if he can perform consistently for the duration of a rugby sevens tournament.
— Quade Cooper (@QuadeCooper) March 1, 2016
Rugby World Cup Third Place Springboks’ Bryan Habana
— Springbok Sevens (@Blitzboks) February 24, 2016
Mourad Boudjellal, the owner of Toulon RFC, must be dreading his phone ringing again after yet another of his players was called up for rugby sevens duty and headed off on the search for Olympic glory. Bryan Habana, who could face Toulon team mate Cooper in the Rio tournament, is known for his speed and he was quick to say just how much work he has to do to get ready for elite level competition.
“To make the full adjustment into the game of sevens is going to be pretty tough. I’ve had eight weeks straight of competition in the New Year for Toulon but sevens is a totally different ball-game. Having watched it over the last couple of years, I have a massive amount of respect for the work these guys do, the fitness levels, the skill levels…
“The physicality of the game has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. A lot of respect for the work ethic out there today, and hopefully I can make the adjustment sooner rather than later.”
Habana’s speed has seen him become the second highest try scorer in XVs but will he be able to emulate that form in rugby sevens, a game he has only played twice before at elite level back in 2004. First he will have to displace Seabelo Senatla who has been one of the best players on the circuit in recent years.
— EatSleepRugby (@eatsleeprugby) February 24, 2016
Time Will Tell
Should Sonny-Bill Williams, Quade Cooper and Bryan Habana make their respective teams they will face opponents who have specialised in the format and have built up an endurance and understanding of the game over countless tournaments. Early outings by Sonny Bill Williams have shown that it isn’t as easy as one may initially think, there is a tempo to the game that comes with experience and that takes time. With just over 150 days to go, is there enough time for these stars to shine?
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Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com