Should USARFU prioritize 7s over 15s, the better to achieve its ambition of medaling at the 2016 Olympic Games? Should it primarily aim at the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup? Why is it feasible to go for both?
The 'high performance' section of Boulder's newest multiyear plan lacks specifics. Its objectives are 1) creating an HP review group, 2) agreeing international team pathways, 3) winning IRB approval for an HP plan, 4) winning USOC approval for a 7s HP plan, and 5) developing a business plan for a new senior men's competition. Strategic thinking requires rather more: competitive context, an approach that is distinctly different from your rivals, and decisions about opportunity costs. Or so I remember Michael Porter's Competitive Strategy.
In the absence of persuasive planning or evidence that America can reach both targets in the next six years, let's consider each game's relative advantages. To start, I declare some interests. One, I prefer 15s. Two, I worked with Eddie O'Sullivan in the late 1990s when he was assistant coach. He did a fine job.
The argument for 7s centers on the team's arrival as a regular Sevens World Series contender. Now 9th on the IRB circuit and having finaled in Adelaide, Al Caravelli's troops are significantly closer to the Olympic podium than the 15s team, which bounces between 20th and 17th in the IRB standings, is to the quarterfinals at RWC 2015.
Judging from team's trajectory since 2005, player identification and development systems are functioning. Even while least two generations have been replaced, the 7s Eagles have continued improving. And more USOC resources are coming online. That's meaningful because most of the current squad will be gone by the 2013 7s World Cup, let alone Rio de Janeiro. As the HP plan tacitly acknowledges, the 15s game isn't producing the same crop of players.
Then there are ancillary benefits. The abbreviated game has become a commercial driver for American rugby, due in part to the USA 7s and in part to the summer Olympics. Also, 7s produces athletes for the 15s program on a faster and superior cost basis.
The argument for 15s over 7s rests on the main thing being the main thing. The Rugby World Cup is one of the sporting world's bigger events in its own right. Olympic 7s is a means to an end.
15s players have the opportunity to compete professionally, for overseas clubs, even as domestic teams look to improve their training environments. Save for the national squad members, 7s can't duplicate that dual track. And 7s doesn't produce the full range of 15s positions.
There's a pair of operational problems: USARFU has been unable to provide 7s player contracts that ease the demands of the 9-month-long season, as it suggested it would last fall, and does not control the commercial development of the USA 7s, which it was forced to sell due to mismanagement. When it's really needed, money for the 15s team has been more readily available, sometimes from Dublin.
The previous strategic plan's ambitions of reaching the last World Cup's quarterfinals yielded an historic winless 2007 campaign. This points up that 2010's present lack of National Guard money may leave Boulder in financial straits similar to 2006, when the upcoming women's World Cup and the following year's world championship caused heavy budgetary strains.
Whether by strategy or of necessity, a decision on 15s versus 7s may be required.