Sevens Player Schedule and Squad Size Questioned

By all accounts, the game of Rugby Sevens is going the way that the XV a side game is going. Bigger, better and faster. Harder tackling, bigger collisions. Not only for those reasons, the issue raised recently by some to examine the Sevens player schedule and squad size has highlighted something which should be important to all stakeholders: broadcasters, administration, players and fans alike.

If any of us were players, we might have clear evidence of the effects of this schedule, of the repeated impact points that are now revealed with injury (but could also be hazardous in the long term) An emphasis this season especially on qualification and selection for Gold medal contention, everyone is looking to Sevens to ‘spread the word” and help grow the game.

That success will in part be on players ability to perform on the world stage and their motivation. To sustain that level today, a player must be on a full year contract that began competitively in December but has been in progress for much longer. Add in strength and conditioning, training and planning, this early focus shows up well the elongated season 2015/2016. Ten tournaments, not including the Rio Games in August.

That translates as two more tournaments in 2016. Not only three days for each concurrent weekend but weeks of preparation and extra demands on squad numbers that have been set at twelve players maximum by World Rugby. That is a contributing factor to the calls for change.

And this limited squad size figure is now under pressure to perform over two-days of intense competition, over ten full International tournaments and in the opening events, has been tested by probably every side. The hardest hit side is in fact one of the premier sides; in New Zealand. That single fact has magnified the issues and advanced player advocacy raised from some esteemed coaches and administrators, such as national Sevens Coach Sir Gordon Tietjens and New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief, Rob Nichol.

Asked at the conclusion of the South Africa Sevens about the worst start to an International season from his All Black Sevens team, Tietjens stated “It was a gutsy performance from the players – I’m proud of how they guts’d it out. But there were too many injuries” he told NZME.

“It showed that this game of Sevens is so so competitive now. You’ve got to be on your game and any team decimated from injury…the dynamic of the team changes.”

SCHEDULE 2015/2016

This began on December 4th with Dubai and continues until May 22nd. Many of the ten events this year are back-to-back, on concurrent weekends. That is a period of more than 100 days of Rugby, not including preparation, pre-season and regular training.

That is very much a fulltime job if we consider the regular season that might begin by September/October when the core HSBC World Sevens Series sides needed to be prepared for this season. Minimum!

Coaches like Sir Gordon Tietjens and his opposites like Mike Friday, Neil Powell or Ben Ryan will tell you they put more and more resources into every season. And in that trend, the demands on players has too grown and vocally, so have some issues raised on this work-rate.

Player representation is at the heart of all matters related to scheduling; as much as Television Broadcasting is, as Sponsors rights are. The commercial versus the player welfare, and in many cases the welfare is secondary. So often the value is in dollars that are benefiting the player, so the old saying goes you cannot bite the hand that feeds you.

Mark Egan, World Rugby’s head of competitions and performance spoke to Rugby World magazine earlier in the year and stated “Rugby has a window, and a schedule we’re very pleased with. We think it’s going to be successful in terms of fitting into the Olympic program, but we’ll be judged in Rio on how well the sport performs in terms of athletic performance, so we make sure we have the best possible facilities and venue for the athletes and we’ll be judged on attendances, how popular the sport is, broadcast-wise, and in a number of criteria measurements that we use in terms of global interest.

“Yes, expanding the Series to ten tournaments and being in markets with potential growth for the sport is important to us as well, but I think the Series has shown over 15 or 16 years that it can stand on it’s own” but many today are wondering if the increased number of events will just exhaust all the participating nations and we may not see their best? Possibly.

In one way, the players will be thoroughly tested in 2016. Besides the current HSBC World Sevens Series, they will need to peak for national Olympic squad selection [if they survive that long, thinking about player attrition]  and then importantly be at their best in the Olympic tournament. Succeed here and the prize is one that will change members of the squads lives. Fame and glory awaits.

But then, soon enough they will face the opening legs of the 2016/2017 season not long after. A long and arduous calendar then awaits them, which by the evidence from World Rugby will become the norm. Admittedly, on the other hand any reduced schedule could see teams go in ‘cold’.

We saw from the New Zealand All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup how any side can ‘limp’ into the qualifying stages, only for that team to resurrect their form ‘just in time’. In Sevens, teams may not have that opportunity to improve slowly though. No full rounds of pool play to build-up to or even to experiment in before a finals/Cup berth is out of reach.

Hit the ground running is the call and it very well should be. Good preparation might necessarily mean increased competition internally but also test the sustainability of all 16 sides. The tough regiment this season will continue after May when 12 teams attention turns to Olympic representation, but the increased calendar also continues in future seasons. That must soon become a discussion where World Rugby must realize the effects of the game–as evident by so many injuries after just two of ten events.

Open Dialogue on Player Welfare

This conversation is due to a tougher schedule that by all reports is ‘set in concrete’ for a period of up to four years. While not as constrictive as many other organisations–think NFL or what the ICC employ, but still a fixed period where long term factors are mitigated in due course only through increased awareness, better reporting from medical staff and personal testimony from the men and women involved.

This article covers Series scheduling and the number of players in each squad, we have not considered factors such as concussion or even external or environmental interference. Player schedule and squad size may only be one of many elements that influence this sport in years to come.

For the sake of the sport, if 2015/2016 is anything to go by, player injuries might become too restrictive on teams for authorities to dismiss. A limit of twelve strong men or women is simplistic when Olympic glory is on the line. One hopes that the success (or failure) of any major team does not come down to the fact that out of 12 players, a side entering the Final with less then satisfactory cover are at a disadvantage. It might diminish the Final, distract from the sports positives and ‘blow-up’ in World Rugby’s face.

Let’s hope not.