The Sevens World Series plans to implement a promotion-relegation system after the end of next season, having first added three more teams as regular competitors.
The intent is to solidify the principle that season-long performance is the basis of so-called core membership, the International Rugby Board said last week.
While details of relegation have not been announced, the impetus is clear enough. With 7s to debut in the 2016 Olympics and only 11 countries (plus host Brazil) expected to qualify, countries that aren't able to compete in all of the circuit's 9 stages are clamoring for coveted automatic berths, in order to improve their chances of reaching Rio de Janeiro.
The changed policy directly impacts the United States, presently one of the dozen core members, because it stands in jeopardy of being dropped.
Up to now, the IRB has designated the top 12 teams for core status. While the US has cleared the bar each of the past three seasons, it has also enjoyed a safety net in that the USA 7s holds a tournament license that guarantees the 7s Eagles automatic berths regardless of performance. The license is valid through 2015, but after the 2012-13 season the provision no longer holds.
Following the past weekend's USA 7s tournament, the fifth of the 2011-12 series, the Eagles lie in 13th position, the lowest of any core member and 3 places behind Canada, which is not a series regular. Under Al Caravelli, the US finished 12th in 2010-11, 10th in 2009-10, and 11th in 2008-09.
The three teams to gain core status for the 2012-13 season will be determined at the next month's Hong Kong 7s. Ironically, enlarging core membership to 15 teams means there will be only 1 invitational place available at most tournaments.
Underlining the desirability of tournament berths, seven national teams played at the Las Vegas Invitational, held alongside the USA 7s, including past World Series participants Chile, Spain, and Romania.