Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby sevens: All bets off for Rio

A jazzed up version of Boney M's 'Rasputin' blared from the Luzhniki Stadium speakers as the Russian women's bench stormed the field.

The reason? They'd beaten England 17-15 in World Cup sevens pool play. The crowd roared. Never have so few made such a cacophony (or maybe it was echoing off the mostly empty 89,000 seats). Local members of the press corps cheered too, knowing space would be reserved for them in the likes of Pravda and Izvestia. Rasputin might have a questionable place in Russian history as clairvoyant to the last tsar but these women couldn't care less; the only future they can see involves the 2016 Olympic medal podium.

England suffered 'sevens paralysis'. Here was a team with all the correct structures, but a ticking clock does strange things. To their credit England marshalled enough will for a final try but the conversion from wide out was fluffed. It was the victor and the vanquished. England still and silent; Russia buoyant and bally-hooing.

Importantly the match offered a peak at the sport's Olympic future and an indication to High Performance Sport New Zealand and the New Zealand Rugby Union that consistent investment will be required if the country's XVs supremacy is to translate to medals at Rio de Janeiro.

The Olympics are a game-changer. Already evidence suggests heavyweights like Russia, the United States and China are benefiting from state assistance.

The Russian women have been the prime mover, going through pool play undefeated with wins against England and Japan and a draw with France. Despite only getting to train outdoors about five months a year, rugby now forms part of the physical education curriculum because it is a Games sport. It mixes with traditional disciplines like gymnastics, track and field and volleyball.

Russian winger Baizat Khamidova scored what was the eventual winning try against England, taking them to a 17-10 lead. Khamidova's potentially a Jonah Lomu of the women's game with her pace and power. Expect players of a similar stature to emerge from such a vast population base. Now they just need some expert finesse. There are plenty of coaches for hire to provide it.

It is a reality the NZRU will acknowledge. Sevens' place at the Olympics has given the game unprecedented exposure and potentially provides wider employment and revenue streams for New Zealanders. For instance Murray Mexted's International Rugby Academy has begun tailoring courses to cater for overseas demands. Unions like Canterbury and Taranaki have been contracted to help the Brazil and Chinese games respectively.

The flipside is such unprecedented levels of shared knowledge mean medals will be harder to get. After watching the Russians it is not hard to believe.

*Andrew Alderson travelled to Moscow courtesy of New Zealand Rugby

- Herald on Sunday

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