The Tokyo Olympics have at last been postponed. It took a while for the IOC and the Japanese Olympic Committee to decide which of them would make the call, but now we know. What we don’t know is precisely when they will be staged in 2021. The most likely call will be exactly twelve months ahead, though that will clash with other events happening around the world. Broadcasters like the NBC won’t want to have to face two ways at the same moment.
For women’s rugby it brings unwanted difficulties.
It has been obvious for years that there would be a relatively short gap between Tokyo and the World Cup (RWC) in New Zealand in September-October 2021.
Short in particular for all the players who had a hope of appearing at both events. Administrators too wouldn’t want to approach either of them with key players missing.
For most athletes the Olympics are the pinnacle of achievement. But not for all.
Over the past two or more years a whole host of Red Roses have opted to switch back to Fifteens – eleven of the 2020 Six Nations squad have played Sevens, eight in the last three years. Apart from the unbeatable experience of rubbing shoulders with the world’s greatest athletes and winning a medal, Sevens leaves something to be desired. There are long gaps in the schedule; only twelve players are needed to provide a squad.
So the two English operations have tended to separate more and more in membership. Not so with most nations. They don’t boast the depth of player-pool England enjoy, so individuals switch across from one to the other. Two recent examples were Caroline Drouin and Marjorie Mayans, the French fly-half and flanker, who both played against England at Clermont last November. Neither was seen again in a 15s shirt; both were spirited straight back to the Sevens programme.
Opinions differ about the challenges presented by the different skill-sets the two formats demand; but most players reckon it takes time and effort to adjust. The difficulty for most competing nations is that they don’t have enough players of quality to separate them off completely.
I would argue that even England are in that position. I have long assumed that Simon Middleton and his management team would want to add names like Alex Matthews (2 RWCs), Meg Jones (1) and Ellie Kildunne to their options for the 2021 RWC.
But the calendar looks hostile.
There are still so many unknowns, including not only the precise date of the rearranged Olympics, but also a possible delay to the RWC. That seems less likely since the world rugby schedule is so cramped. If it turns out that the two events will indeed take place a couple of months apart, then it swings the odds strongly in England’s favour. The sheer number of elite athletes they possess allows them to make do without supplements from 7s. Even the Black Ferns, who must surely be favourites to retain their title, would feel the absence of some of their greatest players, like Sarah Hirini, Kelly Brazier and Portia Woodman.