New Zealand coach Clark Laidlaw: No second chances at Hamilton World Sevens

New Zealand Rugby Sevens coach Craig Laidlaw believes the sport has made a mistake by scrapping quarterfinal matches at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Clark Laidlaw, who has guided New Zealand to Rugby World Cup Sevens and Commonwealth Games triumphs, believes the sport has made a fundamental error by scrapping quarterfinal matches at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series events in Hamilton and Sydney.

It has been decided to take the four pool winners straight into the semifinals, which means that, due to scheduling difficulties, there is no second chance for teams who slip up in their pool. Hamilton, which starts on Saturday, and Sydney (Feb. 1-2), are two-day events and with the women's series also being staged, there isn't the time to allow a quarterfinal round.

Laidlaw's men jointly top the current table with South Africa and face the USA -- for much of last year the No. 1 team in the competition -- in their pool, with just one team going through. Previously, the team finishing second would have also made the last eight.

Laidlaw, whose team won the World Cup in San Francisco and Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2018, said: "No quarterfinals means no second chance, and we have the USA in our group and they are more than capable of beating us. They are a real threat and a genuine Olympic Games prospect and have shown that over the last couple of seasons.

"We have to hit the ground running against Wales first up before facing the USA. All of the teams have to adapt to this format and when I was with Scotland we were always scrapping to reach a quarterfinal to improve our seeding for the next tournament.

"To lose quarterfinals is disappointing and the essence of Sevens is to have a second chance. It is the two-day combined tournaments that need to be looked at and the teams in the bottom eight are playing fewer games. The men's series is far more competitive now and any team can trip you up.

"People care about rugby in New Zealand and the expectation going into Hamilton will be high, and we enjoy that. We thrive on that pressure and not every country has the chance to play at home in the series, and it was a tough selection process. When you see grown men crying because they have missed out, that shows you what it means to them."

With New Zealand having failed to win a third successive Rugby World Cup title in Japan last year, it falls to the Sevens team to try and beat the competition and claim Olympic Games gold later this year in Tokyo.

"By Sevens becoming an Olympic sport that becomes the pinnacle," added Laidlaw, whose father Rory and cousin Greig have both played scrum-half for Scotland. "We have been to see the holding camps and training venues along with the women's Sevens team.

"We are looking at the season as being one where we are trying to win the World Series first and then arrive at the Olympic Games in July with your squad fit and healthy. But we have to front up every week and the next one is Hamilton, but there is no shying away from the fact the Olympics is in the back of the mind for everyone."

In 2016, All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams was included in the Sevens squad and was injured in the first match at the Olympic Games in Rio, but Laidlaw will not be adding any 15s players to the squad he is using in the Sevens Series.

Laidlaw said: "We have 24 players who are contracted for the year and have moved away from any distractions of any players wanting to come in late. We went through a very thorough process with the All Blacks and Super Rugby and met over 40 players to see if they wanted to be involved.

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"Some stuck their hands up and we picked four guys -- Caleb Clarke (Blues), Etene Nanai-Seturo (Chiefs), Salesi Rayasi (Hurricanes) and Scott Gregory (Highlanders) -- who will join us just before the Hong Kong Sevens. We looked at the last Olympic cycle and have created a culture on and off the pitch that we are very comfortable with and if you wait for people to pick and choose, you are doing an injustice to the guys who are already here every day.

"We have won the World Cup, Commonwealth Games and legs of the series over the past two seasons and it is important to have a squad where everyone can look each other in the eye.

"In Sevens, you need to have the ability to run fast for long periods and that is the biggest difference. The chance to run 50-60 metres in a 15s game without being tackled is slim, whereas in Sevens you can do that two or three times in a game."

Being a foreign coach in charge of one of New Zealand's top teams sets Laidlaw apart and -- despite being heavily involved in the country's rugby since 2008 -- his Scottish accent is still strong. His three young girls have Kiwi accents, however, he said.

"Within the rugby community I feel very accepted and have worked with some amazing teams," Laidlaw added. "People expect New Zealand teams to win."