World Rugby has confirmed the dates of the Rugby World Cup 2021. They remain as originally published: 18 September – 16 October. So the gap from the Tokyo Olympics amounts to less than seven weeks.
At the end of March I wrote: ‘But the calendar looks hostile.’ And so it proves to be. We must assume that the vast majority of players involved in the Olympics Sevens will not figure in the later event. That is a great pity, removing some illustrious names from the greatest spectacle women’s rugby affords.
The most likely exceptions to this prediction are Australia and New Zealand. But head coaches will have nominated their final squads long before the Olympic torch is extinguished.
The WR man in charge of competitions, Mark Egan, discussed the issue with member nations. Only one asked for a delay of a month or so. This proved impossible, partly because of the cramped rugby calendar, but more crucially because New Zealand will host an international trade forum in November. There would not be enough hotel accommodation available.
On such small margins do major events take place.
So England know they will have to make do without the talents of players who have already proved their worth at past World Cups. The whole Red Roses 7s squad has joined nine players from Scotland and Wales to dispute the thirteen places available in the GB side to travel to Tokyo. That means of course that eleven players will be left behind. How many of them could possibly find themselves filling up places in RWC teams? Both England and Wales have already qualified.
Egan argues that fewer and fewer players are combining both forms of the game. Soon enough they will be operating quite separately.
That in itself is a worrying prospect. It is horribly reminiscent of the great split that took place in rugby in 1895, when northern clubs decided to break away from the Rugby Union and set up their own totally independent Rugby League.
It’s hard at this stage to imagine exactly how this trend might develop. WR has been working hard to increase the importance of Fifteens rugby. The large number of test matches played last year saw that initiative bearing fruit. But for the vast majority of member unions it’s much easier, cheaper and more productive to stick to Sevens. The holy grail of Olympic gold has the added value of gaining government backing.
The Elite Nations
Very few of the top-tier nations operate equally successful squads in both formats. New Zealand manage it almost nonchalantly; France and Canada do exceptionally well to maintain high standards in both.
England find it harder. Over the past few years the Red Roses 7s squad has changed its personnel worryingly often. Most dramatically, some of the leading figures opted to return to 15s. Despite the occasional tournament success they have rarely risen above sixth place in World Series rankings.
(after Series 8, 2019-20)
Both Fiji and Russia stand above England in the Sevens table, proof of its drawing power to second-tier rugby unions.
Dates of the Women’s Olympic Sevens: July 30 – August 1 2021