Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Road to Rio Explained

Rugby Magazine's e-newsletter hit my inbox yesterday and one of the features is an article about the Road to Rio 2016. The pathway to the Olympics was recently announced in which teams need to qualify - the hosts Brazil have an automatic bid - and several nations look to be left out of the 12 team tournament

The top 4 men's and women's teams from the 7s World Series in 2014/2015 each get guaranteed spots. That cycle starts with Gold Coast 7s in October 2014 for the men and Dubai 7s in November 2014 for the women. The remaining teams from around the world battle it out via 6 regional qualifiers with the losing teams funneled into a "repechage" series (a last chance playoff system) for the final spot.

The men's side has a lot more intrigue and hypotheticals with some big losers in the process. Though it could be interesting to see what other North American women's team might punch a ticket to Rio in addition to Canada and the USA should both teams finish in next year's top 4 in the WSWS. Also worth noting is that Great Britain gets to compete as one team so get to pick from England, Scotland and Wales to put together a bit of a super side.

Pat Clifton explains this in depth with a breakdown of the likely outcomes:

Cliff Notes: How the Eagles Get to Rio
Columns - Cliff Notes

Count the women in for Rio. Ian Muir photo
Now that the Olympic Qualification process is set in stone, why not take a look at the Eagles' chances of getting to Rio?
For the women, the road doesn't have many speed bumps. They should be looking to qualify by finishing in the top four of the 2014/2015 World Series. They finished in the top four in the inaugural campaign and that is a minimum mark they should be shooting for every season.

Canada, too, should be looking to finish in the top four, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where both the Eagles and the Canadians miss out. So even if the American women don't finish in the top four next season and Canada does, the North American qualifier should be a cake walk.
For the men, it's a little more complex.

Top four teams in 14/15 World Series advance
It's safe to say the Eagles and Canadians don't finish in the top four, because neither ever have. In fact, neither Canada nor the USA have finished in the top 10 in the last decade. To be fair, they haven't been core members of the Series all that time, either, but Canada is having a great little stretch right now and currently still sits in 9th, and the USA had its best second half of the season in history last spring and finished 11th.

New Zealand and Fiji have never finished outside the top four in IRB World Series final standings, so let’s pencil them in. Averaging final standings from the previous five seasons and current ranking this season, we’ll say England (average standing: 4) and South Africa (average standing: 2.8) also finish in the top four next season and secure early bids.

Six Regional Qualifiers
That leaves Samoa (which had a slightly lower average than England) and Australia as the only other core teams vying for qualification at the Oceania regional. Whichever doesn’t win will be the favorite to take the repechage bid.

I think it’s safe to assume Kenya wins Africa, Argentina takes South America and Japan tops Asia. In North America it’s between Canada and the United States, and in Europe you have to look at France, Portugal and Spain as the favorites, with Russia perhaps making a push. Who knows, maybe Ireland decides it wants to compete.

Let’s say the current IRB standings are some indication, and give the higher ranking teams the nod in the competitive regions. That gives us the following teams in with one bid left to be won.

Brazil - Automatic bid
New Zealand - Top 4
Fiji - Top 4
South Africa - Top 4
Great Britain - Top 4 via England
Kenya - Africa champ
Argentina - South America champ
Japan - Asia champ
Canada - North America champ
France -  Europe champ
Samoa - Oceania champ

Non-qualifying teams who finish highest at their regional qualifiers move to the repechage, or last chance, competition. So, using traditional competitiveness as our guide, these are the guesses for who’s in the repechage:

Africa – Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Uganda
Asia – Hong Kong, South Korea, Sri Lanka
Europe – Portugal, Spain, Russia, Romania
North America – United States, Guyana
Oceania – Australia, Tonga
South America – Uruguay, Chile

Obviously, Australia would be the heavy favorite. Portugal, Spain, Russia and Hong Kong wouldn’t hate their chances, but neither would the United States. Every team minus Australia, and maybe Portugal, the Eagles would be favored to beat.

So the repechage isn’t death, but it does have far more competitive teams than the North America qualifier will. In that event, the USA can be on cruise control to the final, and all it takes is one win against Canada, and the defending Olympic champs are back in the big dance.

The Eagles have an astoundingly poor recent and overall record against Canada in 7s, but occasionally they knock the Maple Leafs off or even blow them out. The United States’ best shot at Olympic qualification is beating Canada in the North American qualifier.

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