- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

GOLD COAST, Australia (AP) - The qualifying process for Rio 2016 in one of the newest Olympic sports begins this weekend with the first round of the International Rugby Board’s Sevens World Series on Australia’s Gold Coast.

The Gold Coast tournament on Saturday and Sunday is the first of nine legs of the series, from which four teams will automatically qualify for the Rio Olympics, along with hosts Brazil.

New Zealand will start as a strong favorite, after beginning the 2013 series by winning the Gold Coast tournament and carrying on to win the title for the 12th time in 15 years, topping the rankings ahead of South Africa, Fiji and England.

With sevens on the Olympic roster, rugby’s leading players - many having previously played only the traditional 15-a-side game - to make themselves available for the shortened form in the hope of competing for a gold medal at Rio.

The IRB has also amended eligibility regulations to allow players who may have played internationally for one country to return to the nation of their birth for the Olympic tournament. That amendment particularly favors Pacific nations - Fiji, Samoa and Tonga - whose leading players often earn their livings in Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

Those considerations add intrigue to this season’s Sevens World Series.

“We, like every other team, want to start with a bang,” New Zealand captain D.J. Forbes said. “Everyone knows how important this Series will be with so much at stake and that will impact every tournament.

“The Olympics is at the back of our minds, like everyone else, but we know to have a chance at qualifying we need to do the basics and tick the boxes along the way.”

Australia reached the Gold Coast final last year and went on to finish fifth in the world standings which, if repeated this year, would make its road to Rio more difficult.

Head coach Geraint John has taken the step of discouraging his players from discussing Olympic implications this early in the season.

“Clearly the more success you have on the field the more points you gain and hopefully by the end of the year we will be in the top four,” John said. “The time to start talking about that, though, is at the end of May.”

New Zealand will play in Pool A on the Gold Coast with Samoa, France and Japan; Australia is placed in a difficult Pool C with Fiji, Scotland and Portugal; England will face Canada, Argentina and the United States in Pool D and South Africa head Pool B which includes Kenya, Wales and American Samoa.

The series continues after Australia with tournaments in Dubai, South Africa, New Zealand, the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, Scotland and England. The teams that don’t qualify automatically for the Olympics through the world series will go into a separate regional qualifying competition.

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