New Zealand Sevens salaries are set to double within the next year in a bid to lighten workloads and create specialist pathways in the build up to the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
High Performance Sport New Zealand this week handed the New Zealand Rugby Union $6.4 million over the next four years - $4.8 million to the men's and $1.6 million to the respective women's sevens programmes - to enhance the push for dual gold medals in 2016.
It is understood some of that funding will be specifically used to boost player wages.
Up to 10 full-time men's sevens players could be contracted by the end of 2013 as part of a gradual progression towards having 20 specialists for coach Gordon Tietjens to select from in preparation for Rio.
At present, annual sevens base salaries range from $25,000 to $45,000, plus $2000 for each tournament appearance. With nine events on the world series circuit an additional $18,000 can be pocketed.
However, all sevens players are currently aligned to a provincial union and play a large part of the NPC to top up their earnings.
It is understood that from next year those who secure full-time sevens contracts will not be required to play the NPC, or Super Rugby.
Wages will rise to between $70,000 to $120,000 per year, dependent on status and experience, to compensate what players were being paid by the provincial unions.
By 2016, high end sevens salaries could reach $150,000.
"If we are in that range it provides these athletes with options. We don't want players to look at sevens and think they will be losing out. We can't afford to do that," NZRU high performance manager Don Tricker said.
"With the way the world series is going leading into Rio there's going to be a clear conflict with sevens and 15s, certainly around the NPC.
"Next year we are going to try and secure eight to 10 full-time players so we take the NPC off the table for them."
Significantly increased wages and sole sevens focus will allow Tietjens to assemble earlier and retain his players for the full year.
Being protected from other forms of rugby could also prolong the careers of sevens veterans DJ Forbes (Counties Manukau) and player of the year Tomasi Cama (Manawatu).
"Right now they don't really have a choice. If they wanted to make an earning out of rugby they have to play NPC and chase Super Rugby contracts," Tricker said.
"We'll be looking to put something together where they don't need the NPC income. We're looking to make it comparable to Super Rugby so there is a choice and they can see it as being a viable career."
Bolstered salaries would not only remove some of the congestion and avoid growing player welfare concerns, but also help lure more young prodigies already attracted by the prospect of a gold medal.
"A lot of sevens players are involved in nine or 10 world series tournaments then the NPC and for some Super Rugby, it's quite overwhelming," Tietjens said.
"Players being able to specialise in sevens is the way going forward.
"It will strengthen and build the depth of our sport. It's possible that there will be a lot of youngsters out there that will see sevens as their only specialised sport."
Tietjens faces a juggling act in the final lead-up to the Olympics when All Blacks stars and even potential NRL players like Shaun Johnson could come into his mix.
Those players would have to commit solely to sevens after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, meaning they couldn't play in Super Rugby, the NRL or for the All Blacks in 2016.
"Between now and 2016 we're looking at creating opportunities, like the Commonwealth Games, for our All Blacks and Super Rugby players to play sevens," Tricker said. "From 2016 it will be total emersion. They have to be fully committed to sevens that year."
- Sunday Star Times