Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Golden goal sees $2m set aside for Rio glory

Sonny Bill Williams is keen to play at the Rio Olympics. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams is keen to play at the Rio Olympics. Photo / Getty Images

A near $2 million slush fund is likely to be put aside to help New Zealand achieve their high-priority goal of winning two sevens gold medals at the next Olympics.

The money is being put aside to ensure high-profile players such as Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam and Cory Jane are able to commit to the sevens programme without
being out of pocket.

The Herald on Sunday understands the definitive cost of chasing gold has not yet been finalised but that close to $2m is being viewed as a realistic budget.

If players of their calibre opt to skip all or part of Super Rugby in 2016, the New Zealand Rugby Union will have to pick up their salaries and also provide compensation so the franchises can contract replacements.

The NZRU began courting franchises about player release plans a few months ago.

In 2012, the NZRU released their vision for the next four years - placing the retention of the Rugby World Cup and two gold medals at Rio as their biggest playing objectives.

Typically, sevens is off limits to contracted Super Rugby players but not in 2016. The NZRU want every player who is keen to be able to commit to the Olympics without contractual impediment.

A horses-for-courses policy is likely to be implemented where, depending on the age, profile, skills and sevens experience of the athlete in question, some will be advised to miss all of Super Rugby in 2016, while others will be able to commit to the abbreviated game closer to the Olympics.

There's strong support for the national body and an agreement in principle from the franchises that they won't stand in the way of players who want to try out for the Olympics.

"Within reason, we are broadly supportive of the bigger goal of winning gold medals at Rio," Chiefs CEO Andrew Flexman said.

"The NZRU have been transparent about their goals and wishes around players and their participation.

"We need to have a more detailed discussion about the detail of compensation and a few other issues. We have to be mindful the Olympics coincide with what will be the first year of a new format of Super Rugby.

"I don't think we want the first edition to be marginalised by too many players opting for sevens. There is a balance to be struck."

Flexman says Williams made it clear when he signed his contract to return to the Chiefs next year that he was interested in playing sevens at the Olympics.

An athlete of his calibre will most likely pick up the shorter form relatively quickly and may still be available for much of the Chiefs' campaign.

His good friend Messam has a long history with sevens and might do the same or, as he's off contract next year, might be able to play just sevens in 2016 and then commit his longer-term future after the Olympics.

Focus on player availability is going to increase following New Zealand's first defeat in five appearances at the Commonwealth Games, which has sparked near panic in rugby circles. Sevens coach Gordon Tietjens called for All Black reinforcements only hours after the loss in the final to South Africa.

"I've sent out a huge wishlist to all the players I consider could be real contenders to go to the Olympics," he said.

"They will make a decision as to whether they want to be considered and, if they do, then in that year, sevens becomes the priority."

As well as Williams, Jane and Messam, Tietjens' wishlist is likely to include others with sevens experience such as Ben Smith, Charles Piutau and Julian Savea.

It's likely players who come under serious consideration will have sevens experience and the NZRU are conscious of allowing too many Super Rugby players to join the programme late, ousting specialists who have been integral to New Zealand's success on the world circuit.

- Herald on Sunday

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