Why did our Men’s 7’s team do so poorly?

The New Zealand Men’s Olympic 7’s team had what can only be described as a shocking outing at the Rio Olympics winning only against Kenya and exiting in the quarter finals. Going down in pool play to Japan was also one of the major upsets of the men’s tournament. Sadly, the NZ Men’s 7’s team has been struggling for a while; now the struggle is very public. I write this assessment as a high school rugby coach of boys who play 7’s and 15’s and a referee of both versions of the game. So what happened?

International rugby 7’s is very different from 15’s

The code is the same and the rules have only minor variations (aside from obvious ones like the numbers on the field and the time of each half) but they are very different games. Success at modern 7’s comes mostly from speed, fitness and passing. Whilst those skills are an important part of 15’s, the bigger version of the game needs physicality, tactical and goal kicking skills, more superior scrum/maul/lineout abilities, positional awareness and institutional knowledge on best tactics. It is much easier to find and train players who are fit, can run fast and pass the ball in the wide open spaces of a 7’s game. This makes it significantly easier for the newer rugby playing Tier 2 and 3 countries (without the player base and history of the game like in the Tier 1 nations) to build a half way decent 7’s programme. If you take the nations who play on the IRB 7’s circuit, the gap between the top and bottom teams is much smaller than the gap that exists between the countries who send teams to the Rugby World Cup (15’s). Whilst some nations have definitely made great improvements in 15’s (e.g. Argentina and Japan), the base of players in the home country, numbers of players with upper level time in the game and institutional experience to be able to run Australia, NZ, South Africa or England close takes decades and many Tier 2 countries struggle to grow the 15’s game big enough to achieve this (e.g. Italy whose global ranking has moved in a narrow band now for a long time).

For many years, due to the depth of the game in NZ, we were able to dominate the world 7’s scene. The ability of countries to find and train speedsters who can be taught to pass makes it harder for NZ to stay on top.

Tietjens stayed at the top too long

It’s hard to say this but I’m afraid it’s true. Tietj has relied on the services of a particular type of player where physicality at the breakdown (often to counter the big Fijian players,  the other dominant 7’s nation) has been paramount. The game has grown past that style with speed, agility and more frequent passing (in the mode of touch rugby) becoming a bigger feature of the game. This reduces the frequency of bruising physical encounters at the breakdown and thus turnovers provoked by the NZ strongmen. Our opponents just try and run around us and have gotten better at the running game. Whilst NZ 7’s teams are still excellent runners of the ball, the gap with that skill set between where the NZ team is at is now negligible with many teams. Tietjens has not been keeping up with this trend and has stuck mostly with a formula that worked against less experienced teams who had not yet mastered the running/passing game. 22 years at the top is a long time particularly when most of that was as a winner often a dominant winner so I’m sure the internal pressure to modify what he saw as a winning formula was low.

Tietj also was very clever at playing the IRB 7’s points system which rewards teams with an only slowly diminishing level of points. The points awarded for an outright finals win are not that much higher than a 3rd place finish. Over the last 5 to 8 years, Tietj has been happy with NZ making the semis of every tournament on the circuit and only winning the odd tourney because he knew that the team that might pip NZ at any given 7’s circuit tournament was often different each time. When NZ didn’t win a final, it was Fiji then South Africa or England or Australia that did win. With the exception of Fiji, none of those teams were consistently in the top 4 at every tournament as NZ would invariably be and so were rarely a long term threat on the points table. This meant NZ would amass enough points to take out the overall championship whilst not winning every individual tournament. Unfortunately, those sort of tactics don’t work at a one-off tournament like the Olympics. Exiting the quarter finals is something that has happened to NZ before but at the next tournament on the circuit, they’d win the final. Having a bad tourney because of injuries or the rub of the ref calls could be made up at the next stop on the global circuit. In Rio, NZ faced a perfect storm of injuries AND ref calls not going their way AND playing poorly. Relying on the results of other teams in other pools to make it through to the quarters always meant we’d be in a ‘best team vs worse team’ scenario in the quarter finals hence meeting Fiji. Had we topped our pool, we’d have faced a weaker quarter final opponent.

Tietjens has had a great run but it’s time to pass the torch to a younger coach more imbued and experienced in the faster paced running game that has become the international 7’s norm and select players accordingly

 7’s refereeing is a lottery

Reffing top levels 7’s is actually not easy. The game moves at lightning speed in terms of the actual movement around the field and the speed at which contact occurs. You have to make decisions at the breakdown in a split second and the decision as to which team infringed is not as clear cut as it is in 15’s. There’s enough controversy in 15’s over ref calls at the breakdown and these are amplified dramatically in 7’s. There are a number of contact events where calls can go either way or where there can be a wide disparity between refs at certain key game events. Common amongst the 50/50 calls are things like the player in possession not releasing the ball in the tackle and the defending player at the ruck being on or off their feet. That contact point can be over in seconds and the ref has to decide between the two penalty options and it is often a 50/50 call that literally can go either way. Common among the disparity of calls amongst refs is the tackler release situation and side entry. One ref will penalise a defending player for not releasing the tackled player where another ref will allow play to continue. Most side entries are obvious but others aren’t and the gate is not as easily seen and defined as it is in 15’s and a pedantic ref will rule a penalty for side entry and others won’t. It is what I call the 7’s referee lottery. Incorrect (or marginal) referee decisions have a far greater impact on the outcome of a 7’s game than in 15’s because a turnover in possession has far more serious consequences to the team who lost possession because passing and running by the team in possession can run out the short clock. In 15’s you don’t have the space to avoid contact and there is time to claw back the impact of a bad ref call. Had the first Australian try in the women’s final been sent for TMO review (the Aussie player lost the ball before grounding) and had some very marginal penalty calls gone NZ’s way, the outcome may have been different. Australia were the better team both through the year and on the day but my point still stands, refereeing decisions affect the outcome of a much larger number of 7’s games. It is why there are so many more upsets than in 15’s. Add to that the bounce of the ball at kickoffs and the impact of a small error like knocking on a simple pass or catch and a team that may have traditionally always beaten a particular opponent is 2 tries down and playing catchup footie against a short clock.

In my opinion World Rugby should’ve insisted on playing refs in their strict internal assessment ranking (i.e. the current No. 1 ranked 7’s ref to control the centre of the gold medal match, Numbers 2 and 3 to control semis etc.) rather than be swayed by any IOC guidelines on regional sharing. A mid ranked Spanish referee should never have been controlling a gold medal match as happened with the woman’s final. Also, for the IRB 7’s circuit, World Rugby really needs to have two on-field referees like the NRL now have at all top level league games or use the Touch Rugby system of a rotating three on-field referees on and off due to the pace of the game. Either change would ensure refs in the centre would be just that little bit fresher and closer to the action to assist in improving on marginal calls.

 7’s isn’t as much of a priority with our top players

International 7’s for many countries like Spain, the US, Kenya etc. is a massive step into a large and growing world stage. I know some boys we’ve coached here in the US (or boys I’ve reffed their team) who made the USA 7’s team. They push and train and dream for their moment on the world stage and for the chance to take down a traditional top tier team (as the US has managed to do). Contrast that with the NZRFU struggling to get 7’s suitable Super Rugby or All Black players to consider being part of the NZ team to Rio. 7’s is not the glamour sport in NZ that it is in the up and coming rugby countries. While developing countries’ 7’s programmes are doing little to immediately build 15’s, the US for instance sees 7’s as an entry level attraction/marketing tool to lure football mad kids into the game. Maybe the humiliation of Rio will jolt NZ players to change their priorities. The Men’s 7’s should’ve been a shoe in for a kiwi gold medal. When 7’s was announced as an Olympic sport we were. The global audience for rugby has never been bigger than at Rio and I’ve read a number of US sports writers who’d never give rugby a second glance who have become transfixed by the game in Rio. I get that winning the Super Rugby title was job one for the Hurricanes hence for example Ardi Savea’s decision to pass on Rio but this is the consequence – national humiliation. The All Blacks can still dominate 15’s AND we can remain strong in 7’s, it’s not an either-or situation. Unfortunately, the international 7’s circuit has lost its attraction for top NZ rugby players. I get that but the Olympics is a whole other league and ought not be treated as the 12th leg of  IRB circuit.

Finally, it must be said: New Zealanders are more bored with 7’s than other countries. Witness the decline in popularity of the Wellington 7’s (although there are other factors contributing to this decline). Wellington struggles to sell half their seats now where as the Las Vegas 7’s is getting bigger and bigger every year. It is hard to get around this fact. I like 15’s way more than 7’s. I enjoy reffing 7’s but it is really only a fitness challenge, reffing 15’s is more technically challenging. I am bored with 7’s and don’t get the thrill that Americans get from watching it. Our boys play in a pre-season 7’s session for 3 weeks. For brand new players it’s a flashy fun intro to rugby but frankly we find it really does little to prepare them for the main 15’s season as the skills sets are so different. Our head coach (also a kiwi) loathes 7’s and is reluctant to support it and we do so more to support the local youth union than anything. The attitudes that us kiwi coaches have here regarding 7’s are shared by high school aged rugby coaches in NZ. High School touch rugby is more intensely followed and played than HS 7’s and HS 7’s in NZ is massively overshadowed by 15’s. 15-year-old boys in NZ dream of being an All Black not playing in the Hong Kong 7’s. Somehow we have to overcome that. I see Steve Hansen has ordered a review of the NZ 7’s team performance and in particular his concern over the lack of enthusiasm for 7’s amongst top players. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

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