The birth pangs of USARFU's college 7s championship have renewed talk of the ideal season for the abbreviated game, the better of the union's international platforms and its leading connection with America's sporting mainstream.
Billed as a starting point for the USA's 2016 Olympic team, the 24-team men's tournament lacks TV arrangements and commercial backing to offset the participants' costs, while the College Station, Texas, locale was announced just yesterday. So much is typical of Boulder's business development efforts, and the drab debut markedly contrasts with the Collegiate Rugby Championship, the rival effort of the USA 7s.
From a technical perspective, however, USARFU's difficult but well-reasoned decision to choose fall as the time to play school 7s remains sound. The real perils of a middling tournament lie in trying to perfect the context rather than improve the execution.
Fall 7s mostly precedes the International Rugby Board's 7s World Series, as does senior 7s in the summertime. Both are rare instances of American alignment with the global calendar.
7s training better precedes 15s, not vice versa, and fall 7s steers rugby around the football juggernaut more adroitly than its cousin. One-off tournaments can be squeezed in, as 2011's nimbly arranged slate of qualifiers demonstrated, making the June CCR, for all its commercial success, now seem the outlier.
15s has never successfully competed with gridiron for fields and trainers to mind contact-sport athletes, save for the military academies and some Ivy League teams, and calls for for fall 15s to precede spring 7s founder on the matters of technical progression and tracking international competition.
The scenario admittedly runs up against leagues which traditionally determine national 15s berths in autumn. Though the invitations have been released, one Eastern qualifying tournament is yet to be played. This partly explains the December 16-17 event dates, which are so late as to conflict with some final exams and even holiday travel.
Then there are meaningful questions about the well-being of players gearing up for multiple peaks in a given year. Most NCAA sports have just one.
The timing also reflects USARFU's stop-start rush to market. Senior officials overruled a committee charged with overseeing the event, which had recommended beginning in 2012, and then effectively delayed vital planning, according to people familiar with the matter. But seven-a-side's rising importance has been apparent for nearly a decade, punctutated by the International Olympic Committee's vote include the abbreviated game in the 2016 Olympics. In this light, Boulder is not too soon but too late: the CRC beat USARFU to the punch.
Though the commercial record is discouraging, it is feasible that scheduling and technical issues can be mitigated. The college 7s tournament may become a proving ground for USARFU's idea that devolving responsibilities to Peter Seccia's university committee will advance the ball further, faster than Boulder has previously managed.
As is often the case, the teams themselves look to be adaptive. 'We played developmental 15s for our new and young players in the fall to prime them for spring 15s competition, and we have been able to peel our best 7s players out of the mix for a few weeks' time frame in the late fall to prepare for the 7s window', one coach noted in an email.
Only 4 (or 5, if Navy qualifies) of the 2011 CRC teams will be in Texas. But next month's field includes more than half of the top 16 from last year's division 1A competition (then called the College Premier Division). With Army, Dartmouth, the Utah schools, and Cal missing, the College Station group thus looks like an emerging generation of contenders. Handicapping will be difficult.
2011 College 7s National Championships
Air Force, Arkansas State, Boston College, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Central Washington*, Colorado*, Florida, Kutztown State*, Life Chiropractic*, Louisiana State, Miami (Ohio)*, North Carolina State*, Oklahoma, San Diego State, St. Mary's*, Tennessee*, Texas, Texas A&M*, Univ. of California-Davis, Univ. of California-Los Angeles, Virginia, Western Washington, Wisconsin*, and the winner of Empire 7s on Nov. 19
* denotes qualifying tournament champion and automatic qualifier