Brendan Gallagher: GB’s road to Rio at sixes and Sevens

 Mark BrightThe Commonwealth Games Sevens at Ibrox may have been a huge success on and off the field but it further confused the picture as far as Great Britain and the Rio Olympics are concerned.
England, with their fully professional, centrally contracted squad, were lacking stardust and dynamite and struggled to beat Scotland and Wales of the Home Unions while they looked a long way short of challenging South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Add Fiji to the equation in 2016 and the only conclusion you can draw is that GB have it all to do.
Qualification is the first headache and with England the nominated GB qualifying team in the forthcoming IRB World Series a number of major issues are emerging.
Firstly as the World Series becomes stronger there is currently no guarantee that England can repeat their fourth place of last season and claim one of the guaranteed places in Rio that have been set aside for the top four finishers in the World Series for the 2014-15 season.
You would put your mortgage on New Zealand, South Africa and Fiji easing through with something to spare so that could leave England, who could only manage sixth overall two seasons ago, battling against the likes of Australia, Samoa, Kenya, Argentina, France and whoever else might step up to the plate – USA perhaps? – as the extra motivation of the Olympics kicks in.
No easy task whichever way you look at it and there are some in the Sevens world who are still not entirely happy with the arrangements.
As they pointed out when the qualifying process was established what happens if England, badly needing a good tournament result to boost their overall ranking as they strive for that top four spot, meet Wales or Scotland in a pool decider or knock-out match? Would that match not be open to manipulation and suspicion?
Indeed, absolutely it would, and although England, Wales and Scotland will be insulted at any such suggestion I can assure you that there would be very few people in the far-flung and eclectic Olympic world – and that is the massive sporting family rugby is now re-joining after 90 years of exile – who really understand, or fully trust, the concept of Great Britain.
I mean I ask you how can four countries, although only three in Rugby Sevens terms, compete as one and get away with it and yet pitch up at World Cups – rugby, cricket, football, hockey – as separate nations flying their own flags.  Objectively there is a huge dollop of having your cake and eating it, too, involved here and Olympic sport can be famously jealous and suspicious as well as displaying much finer traits as well.
As for the reality of UK passport holders, citizens and tax-payers in Northern Ireland only being eligible to play rugby for Ireland and the concept of the British and Irish Lions mustering once every four years or so don’t even go there.
It completely defies logic and any parameters of what might be considered normal.
The system has evolved because the British and Irish were at the very administrative heart of international sport, not least the Olympics, when it started developing and we rather made the rules up to suit ourselves!
The party line at present is that the World Series organisers will be watching England like hawks whenever they play Wales and Scotland this coming season and frankly that extra pressure and scrutiny is a small price to pay for their indulgence on this matter.
If England fail in that first hurdle there is no need to panic but it gets complicated because if Great Britain had to qualify through the backdoor, away from the World Series, they could immediately introduce players from Wales and Scotland to help complete that process. That “backdoor” qualification route would be via a FIRA European qualifying tournament and, after that, there is even a repechage for the best 16 losers of the regional qualifying tournaments.
It wouldn’t be easy but you would fancy that England alone would eventually complete that process but perversely it would probably be in GB’s interests to introduce the Celts as this stage to gain valuable game time as an integrated squad. And that’s where the real fun and games starts because no GB coach has as yet been appointed and no selection process approved.
And remember GB Olympic selection is very different. It has stringent guidelines with the British Olympic Association (BOA) operating an appeals procedure whereby anybody who feels aggrieved at their non-selection can launch an appeal to the BOA with a view to getting that decision overturned.
That happens much more often than you would suspect with just a few high profile cases ever hitting the headlines. Selection criteria and processes must be clearly defined and set in stone but the GB Sevens programme is a million miles away from that.
In fact almost nothing is in place, distressingly so. If and when GB qualify there is then the small matter of preparing that team for what everybody agrees is both a massive challenge and an opportunity. Where are GB going to get meaningful opposition or do they seriously believe they can do the Lions thing and just pitch up with the minimum or preparation and rely heavily on natural genius and camaraderie.
Remind me how many series have the Lions actually won in the last 100 years for all their wonderful efforts?
Great Britain could try and stage a number of invitation “Masters” tournaments inviting the top eight or 12 teams from around the world – Francis Baron was having a serious look at this before he stepped down – but why should the other top nations help GB? The only reason I can think of is dosh, there would have to be a financial incentive so that would have to be factored into the organising of any such tournaments.
Perhaps GB could muster in disguise as an invitation all-stars “club” team in the Premiership Sevens series although that would require Premiership Rugby to play ball, which is far from a given.
The blindingly obvious thing to do would be for England, Wales and Scotland Unions to waive their rights to enter national teams in the 2015-16 World Series and field a GB team throughout the ten legs but that would require a level of co-operation never previously seen by the normally warring tribes.
It would also disrupt their own national Sevens programmes for a season but then again if Sevens is to have a long term Olympic future this problem won’t be going away anytime soon. A template needs to be found. By the way I’m not even considering, for a moment, what happens down the line for 2020 Games if Scotland votes for independence.
If a GB team could be formed for the World Series that would be the point at which some of the big names in British rugby who have expressed an interest in the Olympic Sevens, would have to front up and prove their allegiance to the programme by negotiating lengthy periods of absence from their clubs at vital stages of the season.
I know of at least three stellar names in British rugby who are seriously considering doing whatever it takes to be part of a GB squad but as with many players whose contracts are tied into World Cup cycles, they will be looking at future contractual arrangements early next year and desperately need some hard information to go on.
At the moment they still have nothing concrete to go on and the feeling persists that if we don’t get organised sooner rather than later the 2016 Olympics could rather pass GB by.
Rugby 15s perished as an Olympic sport in 1924 due largely to a lack of support from the Home Unions which was unforgiveable really considering that the Games founder Baron de Coubertin was a massive rugby fan and international referee, taking charge of France’s first ever Test in 1906.
He had fought against dissenters to keep rugby within the Olympics but eventually gave it up as a lost cause. The 2016 Rugby Sevens tournament will be a success whatever but a well-founded GB team firing on all four would add so much to an occasion when rugby needs to be seen in the best possible light.
*This article was first published in The Rugby Paper on August 3.

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