Australian sevens coach Tim Walsh has called for consistency in the scheduling of the World Sevens Series as players and coaches prepare for a radical shake-up in the upcoming Hamilton and Sydney sevens tournaments.
For the first time, the New Zealand and Australian legs of the World Sevens Series (on 25-26 January and February 1-2 respectively) will see all quarter-finals scrapped.
In a contentious change, only the winners of the four pools at both events will progress straight into semi-finals. Normally, in men’s sevens tournaments, the top two sides from each pool qualify for quarter-finals.
Both Hamilton and Sydney are both fully integrated, with concurrent men’s and women’s tournaments being run.
In the 12-team, three-pool women’s event, the top sides in the pool will progress along with one 'next best’ team, from across the pools.
The radical changes are due to the fact both Hamilton and Sydney Sevens are being squeezed into two days, at one-field venues, and World Series organisers have cut back the number of games to complete the dual-tournaments.
Hamilton is in it’s first year of staging a mixed men’s and women’s tournament, and while Sydney is in its fourth year of being mixed, it has been moved to Bankwest Stadium and is no longer a three-day event.
That is partly due to the mandatory five-day rest period required after Hamilton and partly the huge costs of running a three-day mixed event, which invariably loses money on day one.
The changes to the finals will make the cut-throat nature of sevens even more acute, with most of the world’s top ten teams in the men's genuinely capable of beating each other.
Good teams capable of making a run from the quarters to a title will miss the playoffs altogether, and Australia’s men in particular will face a huge challenge in Hamilton to top their pool.
After finishing 11th in the last run in Cape Town, Walsh’s team will have to beat Olympic champions Fiji in their group to progress.
Australia’s women’s team are in strong form but will also have a stern pool rival in the USA.
One-off minor placing games, for 5th/6th, 7th/8th and so on, will be played based on results from the pool stages.
"The positive, or the reality, is that it is the same for everyone, so at least the playing field is level,” Walsh said.
"You just have to be the best. They’re all killer pools these days. It’s just respecting your pool and giving everything.”
The drastic schedule changes in Hamilton and Sydney aren’t the only new elements on the World Sevens Series tour in 2019-2020, however.
The tour is dealing with the growing pains of having expanded the Women’s World Sevens Series from six tournaments to eight, and making six of those fully integrated with legs of the men’s tour.
Where the two tours were largely separate, and ran on a simple format of six games over two days (three pool games and three finals), the big changes in 2019-20 have created a patch-work of different scheduling approaches, with can see teams play as little as one game a day.
The mixed Dubai tournament was three days, but teams played one game on the first day, two on the second, and only one on the third if they didn’t progress past the quarters. Minor placings were done for most teams based on for-and-against.
The same set-up occurred in Cape Town, which was also a new mixed tournament.
Hamilton and Sydney will be mixed two-day tournaments, at venues with no capacity to alleviate the log jam by playing games on a second field.
The men’s tour will play a three-day tournament in LA, before a mixed three-day event in Hong Kong, standalone two-dayers in Singapore and London and then a two-day mixed tournament in Paris.
The fixture schedule of those tournaments are yet to be released.
While Walsh said he understood the need for evolution in sport, he believes the lack of consistency in scheduling is “compromising” the traditional essence of sevens, as built over the last four decades.
"The factors around the product were always consistency, player welfare and then the commercialism and broadcasting,” Walsh said.
"There is not a lot of that (consistency) at the moment. We are going from three-day tournaments to two-day tournaments, some have quarter-finals, some go straight to semi-finals, some are with the women, some joint. So from a supporter point of view there isn’t any consistency there.
"And that’s the thing that’s going to bring understanding and connection, and broadcasting (success) to the sport. That’s where it is having a detrimental effect.
"You do have to evolve the game, I understand that. But the beauty of sevens has always been the quarter-finals because it always gives opportunities to many teams.
"So many times you see a team scrape into the quarters and then go on and win the final, and it just adds, I think great viewing.
"And that’s just the way sevens has been operated, and even having the games - three on one day and three on the next day - players are prepared in a physical way to be able to be prepared for that. Then by the end of it they’re really fatiguing and it’s exciting.
“But we have cut the finals from 10 minutes to seven minutes, and sometimes you are now playing four games over three days, so you are getting heaps of rest. It is taking away from what the essence of sevens was and where it was developing to.”
"I am all for evolving the game, you have to evolve to the times and for it being a viable business.
“But the essence of it, and the product created around it, needs to be held on to. It is a very unique game.”
Walsh often talks about sevens being a test of adaptability, in which teams can handle anything thrown at them on and off the field.
And he says the changes in Hamilton and Sydney will be just another challenge to overcome.
"That’s the fun part, sevens is all about adapting,” Walsh said.
“Because of the travel and six different oppositions in two days - in the old format - so this is just another challenge we have to deal with, and we’ll see who gets it right and comes out on top."
After a positive opening tournament in Dubai, where Australia finished unbeaten in their pool but lost in the quarter-finals to Samoa (before finishing fifth), the Aussies crashed out in Cape Town with an 11th-placed fade-out.
"We didn’t get a good result and it was expected to a certain extent,” Walsh said.
"We had a huge three or four months leading into Oceania, where we set to qualify for the Olympics and then roll on for Dubai. And then because it is such a long season I rested three to four players, and Ben O’Donnell got his arm operated on. So it was always going to be a tough tournament.
"It wasn’t anything we couldn’t adapt to, and do better than we did. There’s no excuses there.
"But it was always going to be tough and look at Samoa (who made the final ), they fell off a cliff and finished 14th and we were down there.
"All those teams that were in different cycles were in a bit of a struggle, or fatigued state. Disappointing yes, but concerning? No. We are comfortable where we are in a rugby and mental side of things. We are excited with the year ahead.”