Rugby Sevens teams set sights on Olympic glory

With rugby sevens making its debut as an Olympic sport in Rio in 2016, coaches and players across the world are setting their sights on a place at the Games.

There was already an Olympic buzz at this weekend's Hong Kong Sevens, as training and team selection is being tailored to 2016 ambitions.

England coach Ben Ryan made it clear that the Games is now a determining factor in his team's development.

"We're part of a collective for Great Britain and our job is to make sure the players coming through the England system are good enough to get themselves on a plane to Rio, and good enough to qualify Great Britain to get on a plane to Rio," he told AFP.

Players from the 15s game are now considering crossing over to sevens, spurred on by the chance to win an Olympic medal -- former All Black Sonny Bill Williams has said he is tempted to make the switch for 2016 and All Black Liam Messam has said he wants to compete for gold.

But legendary New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens says those coming into the game will have to work hard to make the grade.

"To be good at this game you've got to be playing and training it -- we've got some All Blacks that have expressed an interest but they'll have to play in some World Series tournaments and we'll gauge from their performances whether they make the team for the Olympics," he told AFP.

Training players for the explosive sevens game will take time. "It's going to require six or seven months of conditioning and training," says Tietjens

Twelve teams will qualify for the Olympics in a three-stage process. Four will be taken from the 2014-2015 World Series and six from a qualifying event across the International Rugby Board (IRB) regions.

The remaining spots will be filled through a final tournament, with one slot available if Brazil has been granted an automatic place and two if it has not.

Despite being hosts, as a fledgling side Brazil need to put in some work to secure a free pass into the Games.

"We're looking at what performance criteria we can set for Brazil over the next two years to see if they can automatically qualify," Mark Egan, head of development at the IRB, told AFP.

"We want Brazil to be strong and we're working closely with them -- I think for the success of the tournament you'd want to see Brazil in both the men's and women's events, whether they qualify on merit or get an automatic position."

With Brazil making an impressive debut at the Hong Kong Sevens pre-qualifier this weekend, team captain Fernando Portugal has high hopes.

"Without a doubt I would like to play in the Olympics -- it would be a dream come true," he told AFP.

Though rugby is little-known in Brazil, he believes the players' commitment and the Olympic stage will go a long way to changing that.

"Our passion for rugby is contagious for the Brazilian people, and we think in the coming years they will support us more and more," said Portugal.

Speaking before the Hong Kong Sevens, Sebastian Coe, who was chairman of the highly praised London 2012 Olympics, said the inclusion of sevens in the Games would be good for the sport as a whole.

"Rugby sevens will help the globalisation of the game and the number of countries that will play it," he said.

For Tietjens, it's the chance to cap an illustrious 20 years in the sevens game.

"I've been to four Commonwealth Games and I've enjoyed every one of those tremendously," he told AFP. "The pinnacle of my career is taking the team to the Olympics."

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