Tuesday 24 October 2017

'There's not a hope in hell we are going to Rio' - Eddie Wigglesworth

Director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth explains IRFU's Sevens strategy to Ruaidhri O'Connor

Eddie Wigglesworth says the IRFU's focus is on 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo
Eddie Wigglesworth says the IRFU's focus is on 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE IRFU have effectively ruled out the prospect of Ireland having a men's Sevens team at the 2016 Rio Olympics and believe the big decision they must make in the coming months is whether they should aim for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

While Ireland may enter a team in the 2016 qualification repechage next year, the IRFU concede that there is too much ground to make up for a team made up of amateur and development players.

The main factor behind the uncertainty over Sevens comes from the IRFU's difficult financial position. With doubts lingering over the Heineken Cup and five and 10-year Aviva Stadium ticket sales at almost half what was forecast, the IRFU are "deficit budgeting" for this season.

Director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth believes that only the core Sevens circuit nations are in with a shot at medalling in Rio and, as Ireland are a minimum of three years away from making that level and have yet to decide whether they want to pursue that route, he believes the idea that the men's side could compete at Rio is a pipe dream.

"Realistically, there is not a hope in hell we're going to be in Rio," Wigglesworth told the Irish Independent. "The big question for us is, how long does it take us to prepare to go to Tokyo?

"It is three years before we'd even get a sniff at the Sevens world series. The world series is a professional series, the level of which is a substantial difference from where we are now.

"Even if we took the best academy backs and put them out, we would get hosed. At this stage we would probably even get beaten by the top level of Division 1.

"Rio is about starting a process. Even the repechage would be a minimal exercise because you would get so far in the repechage and fall out.

"The question for us from an IRFU perspective is, do we want to be in Tokyo? The Union has made no decision regarding its involvement in Rio or Tokyo.

"We did decide with the publication of a report two years ago that we would invest in the women's side of the game, because it gave us the greatest opportunity to be one of the 12 teams in Rio and be on the podium. That, we didn't believe, was a possibility, even two years ago, for the men."

COMMIT

Wigglesworth's comments will come as a blow to club players like Sevens international Cian Aherne, who is campaigning for the IRFU to commit to Sevens and give All-Ireland League players a chance, and whose cause has begun to attract initial interest from sponsors.

The Limerick man, who met with the official last month, has offered his playing services for free but with Wigglesworth stressing that there is little attraction for sponsors at the start-up level of the competition, the IRFU is not in a position to invest, particularly with the uncertainty over the future of the Heineken Cup.

The successful women's programme currently costs €1m to €1.2m per year with more than 70pc coming from IRFU coffers and the rest from Sports Council funding and Olympic solidarity funding. It is believed a professional men's equivalent would stretch to €1.5m, with start-up costs higher.

"The base that we're working on is that we have a deficit budget," Wigglesworth continued.

"Men's Sevens, as with women's Sevens, is exclusively about cost and we can't afford, in the time we are in and particularly with the European situation hanging over us, to decide to spend a lot of money doing something new.

"Despite Cian Aherne's very generous offer not to take payment, the fact of the matter is that when we put out amateur teams it is a costly operation for the governing body."

One argument put forward in favour of Sevens is that it would be a development tool for young players that would improve their game. Wigglesworth disputes that claim.

"The big challenge is that the correlation between 15-a-side players and Sevens players is diminishing all the time," he said. "Where we would want a centre to be up around 105kg to 110kg in the 15-a-side game, you are looking for 85kg to 90kg in Sevens.

"The type of physique is changing rapidly and this causes problems because, at the moment, the contract value in Sevens is a poor relation of the contract value at 15s.

"Players want their contract at 15s, which means they need their body shape to endure and be durable at 15s, because it takes about three months to put the weight on and five to take it off and in the interim you have a conflict between the two.

"The notion that guys would come back from playing Sevens and be ultra-fit is a misnomer. They would be aerobically fit, but the demands of the 15-a-side game are such that they wouldn't have the bulk to endure 80 minutes."

Ultimately, it looks like the hopes of Sevens advocates are going to be dashed once again as the bandwagon rolls towards Rio without Ireland on board.

"The biggest single issue, in terms of our position, is that the Union have come to a point where we need to decide what we want to do with men's Sevens," Wigglesworth continued.

"Do we want to play professionally or are we just going to play Sevens internationally? The game of Sevens will be purely an international game, it won't have the same underpinning structure in terms of clubs.

"Whether there is any value in putting an amateur team into the FIRA competitions is questionable.

"At this point in time, with the financial constraints the whole country is subject to, why would we want to do something that would cost a significant amount of money and impact on the professional game in Ireland, which is doing well competitively, and a domestic game structure that is growing?

"Why would we take money away from those and put it into something that is not going to have a significant impact financially, competitively or from an image perspective?"

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