New Zealand's top rugby players will have to give up fifteens in Olympic year if they want a chance to win sevens gold in Rio de Janeiro.
The requirement for "total immersion" in rugby's abbreviated game in 2016 is currently non-negotiable in the New Zealand Rugby Union's Olympic plan.
"Come 2016 we want to provide opportunities for Super Rugby players and All Blacks should they choose to have a crack at sevens to be in the frame to go to Rio," NZRU high performance manager Don Tricker said yesterday.
"What that means in 2016 is complete immersion in sevens, so they will not be playing in any other forms of the game in that one year."
The mandate has the potential to cause angst among All Black and Super Rugby coaches, as well as fans, broadcasters and sponsors. There was an outcry when top players were withdrawn from Super Rugby in the buildup to the 2007 World Cup.
After the 2015 World Cup it is likely some All Blacks will want to chase the Olympic dream and all will get the chance to indicate their availability.
New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens will then decide who makes the cut for a squad, most likely about 20 to 25 players, to prepare for Rio.
Because of their ages current sevens mainstays DJ Forbes (30), Lote Raikabula (29) and Tomasi Cama (32) are no certainties to make it to 2016.
However, Tricker doesn't believe the number of fifteens players involved will be large as the conditioning and skill requirements for sevens become more specialised over the next three years.
"There are a couple of things that need to happen. There needs to be total awareness among the players, so they need to have played it [sevens] somewhere before," he said.
"This is our thinking right now, and clearly it might change as we get a bit closer to it. We believe to get themselves in the condition to play the game of sevens ... our thinking right now is total sevens immersion in 2016."
Tricker acknowledged that there may need to be discussions around the mechanics of how a fifteens player would contractually make the switch if chosen.
However, he said the decision process would be a simple one.
"Ultimately it is going to come down to player choice. A player will make a decision and in terms of the conversation we have around contracting, it will be done on an individual basis.
"But there is no guarantee of selection either. Taking the option of saying, 'I'm going to give sevens a crack', they can work through that, but it doesn't guarantee they will go on to Rio."
Players chosen initially but not making the final cut would probably be able to return to their Super Rugby franchises, he said.
"One of the key things for the strategy is that we will have real competition for places," Tricker said.
"There will likely be cutoff points as you go through. How exactly it is going to work we are still working on ... but we probably see it [top fifteens players making the final cut] as an exception rather than the rule.
"We are hoping to build our depth of specialist sevens players leading up to Rio and it will be difficult for players to step out of Super Rugby or All Blacks and jump straight into the sevens environment."
There are currently no players contracted fulltime only to sevens, but that is set to change in the next 12 months.
"We have three years in terms of developing specialist sevens players. In the end we only select 12 who go to the Olympics.
"If you have 30 or 40 who say they want to have a crack, not all of them will be invited in."
If all of New Zealand's top players made themselves available for the 2016 Olympics, the majority could come from Super Rugby.
Toby Robson floats a theoretical sevens dream team.
Backs: Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, TJ Perenara.
Forwards: Sonny Bill Williams, Ardie Savea, Victor Vito.
Reserves: Liam Messam, DJ Forbes, Frank Halai, Charles Piutau, Beauden Barrett.
- The Dominion Post
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