2016 could be the year that rugby sevens properly takes off around the world, however many fifteens fans continue to see it as nothing more than a distraction.
The reality is that for the first time since 1924 rugby will make an appearance in the Olympic games, as Rio prepares itself for the arrival of the best sevens sides in the world. The problem however, is that many traditional rugby fans see sevens as nothing more than a distraction for when the fifteens season has finished.
This couldn’t be further from the truth however, as more teams are beginning to embrace sevens as a development pathway for future internationals. Both the All Blacks, and Wallabies have utilised their sevens sides to great effect to help give young players top level experience, whilst also honing skills such as offloading and looking for space.
France are the latest team to draft in players from their sevens side, however this has been more of an afterthought than a carefully laid out plan like in Australia or New Zealand. Whilst sevens does provide an ideal development pathway for some players, it is important that it isn’t simply used as a testing ground for new international talent.
Sevens has proven to be the ideal medium through which rugby has broken into new territories. The sevens world series for example now stops off in Hong Kong, Singapore and even Dubai ensuring that rugby is now breaking into countries not normally associated with the game. Not only this, but we are also seeing non-traditional rugby nations starting to take sevens more seriously.
The lower barriers to entry in sevens such as the smaller squad sizes, and lesser requirements in terms of player specific shapes and sizes means countries like USA, Kenya, Portugal and even the Cook Islands all feature in the world’s top 20. There is no doubt that the growing success of sevens is having a significant impact of the growth of rugby around the world.
Not only this, but it is also developing its own global icons. When Carlin Isles burst onto the scene four years ago, nobody outside of the USA had ever heard of him, yet now he has become a global icon in rugby. This kind of star power is a huge draw for crowds, particularly in areas like the USA and will ensure it attracts the right kinds of attention.
There is also the fact that for the most part, sevens tends to provide a much more exciting brand of rugby. The shortened game times, and extra space result in plenty of tries, whilst the more agile players are capable of producing sublime steps before pulling off an audacious offload. The code also bypasses the issues associated with the set piece such as reset scrums ensuring games flow much better.
This all makes for a much more appealing spectacle, that is much easier for new fans to understand due to the lack of complex rules, or confusing situations arising. If World Rugby are truly intent on growing the game globally, then sevens perhaps provides them their best vehicle for building the game in countries with little to no existing rugby.
The other side of this is that sevens is in itself a completely different sport to the fifteens game. Many traditional rugby fans seem to think players can easily just pick up the code having player the full game, and yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. You only have to look at the struggles Sonny Bill Williams has had in adapting to sevens to see that it isn’t a sport you can pick up with no prior experience, in fact it is more akin to a cross-code switch between league and union.
Fans therefore need to get the notion of current fifteens stars appearing in Rio out of their heads entirely. The fact Quade Cooper can’t even get into the Australian sevens side shows the difficulty these players will likely face. It is therefore vital that any players wishing to participate in Rio this year have had plenty of sevens experience in the run up to the Olympics kicking off.