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IRB announce Olympic qualification process

After months of speculation, the IRB have announced details about how the 12 teams will be selected for the sevens tournament at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

The main points from the official document containing the details of the qualification system are:

Great Britain

One of the biggest problems with the design of the selection process has been that England, Scotland and Wales do not compete in the Olympics. Instead the “Home Nations” play as Great Britain.

This obviously raised a problem. How could a Great Britain team qualify, when no such team exists in world rugby?

Originally it had been proposed that the position of the highest ranking team from Great Britain in the men’s or women’s World Series would be used – so if England, Scotland or Wales finished in the top four then Great Britain would qualify for Olympic Games.

However, this format has always been rejected by the IOC as it, in effect, gives Great Britain three chances to qualify. In other sports, such as hockey, the solution has been for a Great Britain team to be formed to play in qualification tournaments, but a range of contractual problems has meant that this would not be possible in rugby.

As a result a compromise has now been reached. If next year’s men’s or women’s World Series includes more than one of the Home Nations, then the British Olympic Association (BOA) must, by 30th June, nominate one of the teams as Great Britain’s “Lead Team”. The performance of only that team will count in the process.

In practice, in women’s rugby, this will mean that Great Britain’s qualification for 2016 will depend on the performance of England in the Women’s Sevens World Series, as neither Wales nor Scotland are likely to qualify for the series.

How qualification will work:

Host Team – One place

Brazil qualify automatically

Women's Sevens World Series –  Four places

The top four teams in 2014-15 Women’s Sevens World Series will automatically qualify. The series is “intended” to consist of six tournaments (as it was this year, although it appears that there will now only be five). There will be promotion and relegation tournament in the spring/summer of this year that will decide who next year’s core teams will be (details yet to be announced). This will need to be completed by May 2015.

Regional qualification – Six places

The winners of the 2015 regional tournaments will qualify – ie. Africa (CAR), Asia (ARFU), Europe (FIRA), North America & the Caribbean (NACRA), Oceania (FORU) and South America (CONSUR).

Crucially any team that has already qualified via the World Series cannot take part in any of these tournaments, and all of the competitions must be completed between 1st June and 31st December 2015. This may be a problem for South America, whose championship is normally in January or February.

Final Qualification – One place

A final “repecharge” tournament for 16 teams will take place at a venue and date to be announced – but some time before 30th June 2016 (date and venue to be announced in November).

Teams ranked 2-4 at the CAR and ARFU tournaments, 2-5 at FIRA, and 2-3 at NACRA, FORU and CONSUR will take part.

What does it all mean?

One immediate outcome of this process is that there will be two South American teams at Rio – almost certainly, on current performances, Brazil and Argentina.

Other than that, next year’s WSWS core teams will clearly have a massive advantage as they will effectively have three opportunities to qualify. This in turn makes this year's tournament hugely important as avoiding relegation must be at the forefront of any team with Olympic ambitions, which in turn puts even more pressure on England and Ireland to decide between selection for Six Nations and the next two sevens tournaments in Atlanta and Rio, both this month – and it is interesting to see that England have already announced a stronger squad for Atlanta than previously expected.

Overall teams in Europe come out of the process with the toughest battle ahead of them, Although they have a third of the world’s teams, their continental decider only provides as many places – ie. one – as each of the others. That said, and because of the depth of talent on the continent, the winner of the final qualifier will almost certainly be European.

It also cannot be taken for granted that England (and therefore Great Britain) will automatically win a place from the WSWS. Even at their strongest England have proven vulnerable, and would the RFU again put at risk the Six Nations next year by releasing leading players to sevens tournaments – especially when the policy failed to achive its aims last year (and in 2009)?

Furthermore, if England did not qualify from the WSWS, would they compete at FIRA as Great Britain? After the fifteens World Cup in August there will be some tough choices ahead for players, coaches and officials.

Reaction

So far, reaction to the announcement has been limited to statements from the IRB and IOC (as detailed in the IRB’s press release). For everyone else, there is a lot to take in (especially for players from Northern Ireland, who can choose to play for Great Britain or Ireland – Olympic qualification being based on different criteria to those  used by the IRB). We’ll keep you up to date.