Three takeaways from the Rugby World Cup Sevens

For a lot of people, Sevens is still the loud little brother of the global rugby family. Fancy dress and four-pints-too-many sticks in the minds of plenty of rugby fans who hear Sevens and picture the huge parties-come-sporting-events of Hong Kong, London and Dubai. But this loud little brother is growing up. Rugby Sevens has taken a huge leap in the last few years, thriving around the world with the incredible on pitch action garnering more attention than the raucous crowds and outrageous fancy dress.

This has never been more obvious than it was this July, when the Rugby Sevens roadshow found its way to San Francisco for the latest edition of the Rugby World Cup Sevens. The first RWC7s to take place after Seven’s historic entry on to the Olympic programme in Rio took place in AT&T Park, usually the home of Major League Baseball side the San Francisco Giants and another huge stage for the sport.

AT&T Park, the amazing setting of the Rugby World Cup Sevens. Credit – @WorldRugby Instagram

Across three days of intense knock-out competition, the best players in the world put on an astonishing show that energised the US crowd and once again showed just how far Sevens has come. A month later, with just under two years until the next Olympic Games in Tokyo, it’s the perfect time to look at the big takeaways from San Francisco, and what they mean for the future of the 7-a-side-game.

All Blacks all conquering

15-a-side. 7-a-side. 36-a-side. it’s hard to believe there is a format of rugby where New Zealand wouldn’t be awesome. In San Francisco, they secured a historic ‘double-double’, cleaning up both the Men’s and Women’s events just as they did in Moscow in 2013.

The All Black 7s and the Black Ferns (the name of New Zealand’s women’s side) have shown an astonishing ability to show up at World Cups. That is despite the fact neither were winners of the most recent HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. Sarah Goss’s Black Ferns side admittedly couldn’t have got much closer. They won the final three legs of the Women’s Series but still fell just two points short of overall winners Australia. The men’s side though were well adrift of winning the Series, finishing third but medalling only once in their last eight legs, a third-place finish at the Series finale in Paris.

The Black Ferns celebrate victory in San Francisco. Credit – @HSBC_Sport Instagram

It was a totally different story in San Francisco. With a wild knock-out format (more on this later) causing shocks left right and centre, it was New Zealand who kept their heads when it really mattered. With neither of the current Sevens powerhouses South Africa and Fiji making the final (New Zealand dispatched Fiji in the semis), New Zealand put England to the sword, winning 33-12. The Black Ferns didn’t even have to face their fierce rivals from across the Tasmin Sea, with Australia going out to an unheralded France side who New Zealand proceeded to demolish 29-0 in the final.

One of the great joys of Sevens is that it’s brilliantly unpredictable. But even that couldn’t overcome the fact that there is very little in rugby as predictable as the fact that New Zealand show up when it counts. Two years ago in Rio, the women’s side took silver while the men’s failed to medal at all. But on the evidence of San Francisco, both teams shouldn’t be written off in Tokyo.

The American Sleeping Giant is waking up

Much of the pre and post tournament analysis has focused on the hosts. North America has long been identified as Rugby’s next big growth market, and nowhere is this opportunity more acute than in Sevens. The USA Men’s team is one of the most fascinating on the Series. With the reigning Sevens player of the year Perry Baker lining up alongside a host of other incredible athletes from a diverse set of backgrounds, they have one of the most interesting teams on the circuit. They were even profiled in a recent all-access documentary. Neither the men’s (eliminated in the quarters) or women’s (knocked out in the semis) teams were victorious in San Francisco, but they both put in impressive displays.

Perry Baker is one of the most electrifying athletes in rugby. Credit – WorldRugby.org

What stood out even more in San Francisco was the support off the pitch. An incredible 100,000+ fans packed into AT&T Park across the three days. It wasn’t just the numbers either, the crowd were enthralled by the action on the pitch, providing a raucous atmosphere for the key moments. The host broadcast on NBC also went down like an absolute storm. The huge US broadcaster confirmed that the three-day tournament was the most-watched live rugby broadcast ever in the USA. Coverage reached nine million viewers across five telecasts, with finals day coverage averaging 1.365 million viewers.

On the back of this success there’s been talk of the States being in line to host the 15s World Cup as well. With the game growing all the time, and on the back of a hugely successful tournament in San Francisco, it certainly could be on the cards sooner rather than later.

Knock-out rugby is brutal, but awesome

The Rugby World Cup Sevens saw World Rugby deviate from the classic format of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and opt instead for a straight shootout in the form of a purely knockout format.

In the run-up to the tournament, the reaction to this change was certainly mixed. The potential for the big guns to crash out of the tournament on the back of a shock result had teams and coaches seriously worried.

But from a spectator perspective, the format was brilliant. It made every second of the tournament crucial and had fans on the edge of their seats throughout. Matches like England vs Ireland in the women’s draw as well as Kenya vs Scotland and the USA vs England quarter-final on the men’s side were impossible to look away from. Sevens has a long track-record of being a proving ground for rugby innovation and this knock-out format could be the latest game-changer to be developed on a Rugby Sevens field.

England’s Phil Burgess celebrates following a last-second win over the USA. Credit – The Independent

With two years till Tokyo, Rugby Sevens is fascinatingly poised. The All Blacks were dominant in San Fran, but on the women’s side Australia are right there with the Black Ferns and in the Men’s Series, the battle between Fiji and South Africa will surely rage for at least another season. Growing rugby powers like Kenya and the USA are threatening too, and by the time Tokyo comes around could have developed even further.

Above all else Rugby Sevens proved in San Francisco that it is more than ready for the big time. The sport looked right at home under the bright lights of San Francisco, and certainly lived up to its grand setting. Sevens may have started as the rowdy younger brother, but right now it is one of the most entertaining forms of rugby out there, and it’s only getting better.

Written by James Fenn – 24/08/18

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