Women's sevens cautious for Rio despite wins
If the inaugural Olympic women's rugby sevens tournament was being played today, the bookies would have New Zealand as short-priced favourites for gold.
That is based on the results of the first world series, which finished this week and is the only basis for assessments when it comes to women's sevens, a sport that has come to life since its inclusion in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
New Zealand were the dominant force in the series, winning three of the four tournaments.
Add the Oceania title they claimed in Fiji last August and it is four titles from five attempts for coach Sean Horan's fledgling bunch of players with backgrounds in 15s rugby, touch, league, football and even netball.
So it may come as a surprise that Horan would not want the Olympics to be held today. In fact, three years is still a bit too soon for his liking.
Why? The way he sees it, New Zealand might have dominated in the results column this season, but they are still behind other top-tier nations when it comes to women's sevens programmes.
He points to examples such as England, who have a "good professional 15s setup", Canada, who have had a centralised programme for several years, and Australia, the United States and the Netherlands, who have moved to centralised women's programmes in the past 18 months.
New Zealand does not have a centralised programme, and player payments are negotiated on a tournament-by-tournament basis. Ideally, Horan says, there would be centralised contracts and fulltime professionals but New Zealand is not ready for that yet.
"I don't think centralising a team in a small country like ours would benefit us at this stage. We are doing well and we have the best model we can at the moment."
He is able to say that because of the support the women's sevens programme gets from High Performance Sport New Zealand, which has invested $4.8 million across the men's and women's teams, and, crucially, the provinces, which have been "fantastic" in support of women's sevens.
Between those groups, they can provide the sort of programme Horan is after for the next three years at least.
His team showed in the recently completed world series that you don't need fulltime professional contracts or money-heavy programmes to deliver the goods.
New Zealand started with a "blank canvas" early last year. Players and athletes from a wide range of codes have been recruited and schooled up on sevens, with excellent early results.
Of the 28 players used in their first five significant tournaments, Horan estimates only 40 per cent came from an immediate background in 15s rugby. The other 60 per cent of athletes were from other codes, such as touch, league, football and netball. And of that 60 per cent, he reckons about two-thirds would have never played a game of rugby before.
The learning process will take a significant step next month with the World Cup in Russia, the big date of 2013.
Horan reckons any one of the six core teams who played all four world series tournaments is capable of winning, but he intends to widen the gap between New Zealand and the rest of the world during the next three years. That is why he's happy the Olympics are not today.
"It's going to be a bloody good ride but the more time we have the better, just because we're starting behind the other teams," he says.
"When you think about it, there are probably only 20-odd tournaments between now and the Olympics, but we're confident in the systems we have in place."
- © Fairfax NZ News