CHRIS KIRWAN: Allow the specialists to make sevens shine at the Olympics
10:03am Thursday 10th July 2014 in Sport
THE countdown to rugby sevens joining the Olympics party at Rio 2016 begins when the Commonwealth Games gets under way at the end of the month.
It promises to be a couple of huge years for the sport and plenty of coaches will be breaking into a cold sweat courtesy of the International Rugby Board's regulation 9.
The issue of player release has already been raised following South Africa's initial selection. They hope to field Saracens hooker Schalk Brits and Toulon winger Bryan Habana but their clubs may prevent them from taking to the field at Ibrox.
The Commonwealth Games are not covered by regulation 9 – which compels clubs to release their players for international duty – but the 2014/15 World Sevens Series will be.
Hopefully common sense will prevail when it comes to call-ups but there will be political pressure to include some big guns as rugby attempts to retain its Olympic status.
"The profile of the players in XVs is obviously something which has a lot of impact. We think it's important and the Olympics would like us to have them there," said IRB chief Brett Gosper last month.
"We would hope the unions would make it easy for those top players who want to be part of the Olympics. It's good for their country, good for the sport and good for the Olympics."
Money is at stake and sevens is a valuable tool for rugby chiefs.
I must admit that I can only cope with watching a game or two before boredom sets in but I am not the target audience – I loathe fancy dress and if I'm going to spend all day drinking then it won't be watered down booze out of a flimsy plastic container at exorbitant prices.
But I recognise the importance of sevens as a development tool and realise that it is a rapidly expanding sport that has enjoyed success in parts of the world where the full game has struggled to find a foothold.
The top ten of the current sevens world rankings contains four nations – Fiji (3), Canada (6), Kenya (7) and Argentina (9) – who are outside the top ten for the proper game.
It also drives punters, sponsors and big companies to stadia over the globe and having big guns such as Israel Folau, Habana, Wesley Fofana and Lions speedster Alex Cuthbert in the odd tournament would give the sport a massive lift over the next few years.
There is a temptation to use the skills of those that thrive in 15s and certain key aspects of proper rugby have become more important in sevens.
Former Dragons flanker Jevon Groves, who has been called up for the Commonwealth Games and been handed a national sevens contract, was at great pains last week to stress how much the game has moved on since he captained his country in Delhi four years ago.
"It's a lot more physical now and you need that blend of forward play because against the top nations you need to match them at the contact area. That's where perhaps Wales have been lacking over the last year," he said.
Prospects, particularly loose forwards and back three players, can pick up some valuable skills on the circuit that will stand them in good stead in years to come.
The last Commonwealth Games featured Cuthbert, All Blacks Ben Smith, Liam Messam and Hosea Gear and Wallabies Nick 'Honey Badger' Cummins, Liam Gill, Pat McCabe and Lachie Turner.
They did their time on the circuit and would no doubt be able to pick things back up pretty sharply if brought back into the fray.
But it will be a disgrace if those that flog themselves on the circuit are left to watch on telly while such stars are parachuted in for Rio.
And it is incredibly presumptuous to think that a number of senior caps makes an individual a better player in the shortened format than those currently learning their trade.
The game has moved since the days of beanpole players such as Andrew Harriman and it is the specialists, whose fitness levels puts those of in-shape 15s players in the shade, that are helping the sport grow. They should be the ones going for gold in Rio.
Every four years we ponder what Olympic gold really means to tennis players who have four big annual targets in Paris, London, New York and Melbourne.
It would be the same for those that have experienced Test rugby – the sevens in Rio would be a thrill but nothing compared to a Six Nations Grand Slam, Rugby Championship triumph or World Cup glory.
However, it would mean everything to those that ply their trade throughout the year in Hong Kong, Dubai, Tokyo, Las Vegas and so on.
Leave it to them to show rugby in good light on a huge stage.