On the eve of the Olympic Games, Rugby World takes a look at the origins, current state and potential of the game of rugby sevens. This feature first appeared in the August 2016 issue of Rugby World magazine.
RUGBY STANDS on the threshold. It’s a little woozy, perhaps even a little boozy, having celebrated a rude growth in fortunes in recent years both commercially and on the field, thanks to fine shows around the world. Domestic leagues continue to attract more fans, global stars cross national boundaries like cartographers with wanderlust, advertisers are booking up pitch hoardings in hordes, and all the while the little ticker in the corner tells us the viewing figures are going up.
There have been high times thanks to World Cups, Test rugby and big domestic rivalries – and the party can get bigger. Certainly the traditional format of 15s is getting ever more ambitious, ever more eager to win you over.
But that path is fairly certain. Right now it is not the traditional form of the game that is causing us to sway in the face of fresh opportunity, a little unsure of what is to come. No, no. It’s the more radical form of union – rugby sevens – that has dragged us to this moment…
There was a time when 15s stood alone in the pantheon of union. But a Scottish butcher had a deviceful idea in 1883 that would set today’s events in motion. Ned Haig saw his club Melrose scrambling for cash and sought a solution. “Want of money made us rack our brains as to what was to be done to keep the club from going to the wall,” Haig said. “The idea struck me that a football tournament might prove attractive, but as it was hopeless to think of having several games in one afternoon with 15 players on each side, the teams were reduced to seven men.”
‘The Sports’ stirred local imaginations, with six Borders clubs travelling to Melrose’s Greenyards ground – Kelso decided not to bother turning up – and battling for the first trophy, presented by “the ladies of Melrose”. Some 1,600 witnessed bitter rivals Melrose and Gala slog into extra-time for the cup and a new finals fell into folklore.
Despite protestations after Melrose left the pitch early in extra-time, having taken the lead, the runners-up held their own tournament a year later. By 1908 a Scottish Borders sevens circuit existed – one that is still celebrated today.
The game had a heartland but fittingly there was open space beyond. In 1926 the game crept across the border into England, where Scottish doctor JA Russell-Cargill helped start the Middlesex Sevens. In 1939 the Rosslyn Park Sevens began putting on competitions for schools – the latter still has tournaments in the same name.
However, the first sevens tournament to be held off the UK’s shores was in 1921 and was hosted at Bosques de Palermo by the Buenos Aires Football Club (BAFC) on 3 July. The inter-club kickaround proved a hit and days later, during celebrations for Argentina’s Independence Day, another tournament was held between the club and local rivals. While it is true BAFC were made up of expats and first-generation Anglo-Argentinians educated abroad, it is a mystery how the game arrived.
Simpler than 15s, it’s easy to see how sevens could be smuggled into new territories, but without advanced communications or even primitive marketing, like all sports it needed missionaries. Commonwealth nations were susceptible to sevens’ charms, as they already had the full-sided game, but a small boom was still needed. The time that became truly possible was the Seventies.
The Scottish Rugby Union decided to celebrate their centenary in 1973 by putting on the first international sevens tournament. A mish-mash of household names from 15s took part. In the end prop Fran Cotton captained England to victory and some eyes turned to a rapid appeal. It was still a kickabout but one that could bewitch a different audience.
Nothing can highlight this more than the Hong Kong Sevens – that famous cocktail of sport and sloshing revelry that has over the years relied on the tagline: ‘If you ever get bored of the sevens, you can always turn around and watch the rugby’. This social and sporting monster was birthed three years after the SRU’s shindig, as a Rothmans Tobacco exec and Hong Kong union bod spotted the marketing opportunity. It was here that players from Asia and the Pacific could converge on the colony and entertain. It was here that nations like Fiji could establish an identity – and an affinity with fans. The fact that Fiji have won the most iconic sevens tournament on 16 occasions, winning admirers every time, helps explain the magic of their relationship with sevens.
This age of change allowed some to incubate a rugby culture away from their old colonial masters. Look at Kenya. According to Michael Kwambo, of the Kenya Rugby Union, the Mwamba club in Nairobi was created in 1977 to offer black athletes an avenue away from the white-dominated clubs. The same was true of Mean Machine RFC, set up the same year. A movement began – one that was about playing with physicality and panache but not in the style of the settlers. By 1982 the Watembezi Pacesetters touring team had been born, establishing a long-running relationship with the Dubai Sevens. From humble beginnings the game pushed out, though the first 15s World Cup in 1987 must have helped.
By 1993 sevens had a World Cup too, notable for an Andrew Harriman-inspired England win in which Lawrence Dallaglio started, ten years before he would win a World Cup in the 15-a-side game. A hitch-kick, a blur of pace, rises and falls in trends and participation later, there have been six men’s Sevens World Cups.
In 1997 there was the first global women’s sevens event, in Hong Kong. In 1998 men’s sevens had its first of five Commonwealth Games. The men’s Sevens World Series began in 1999. By 2009 the women had a World Cup, just as it was announced that sevens would enter the Olympics in 2016 and 2020. That same year global bank HSBC picked up the sponsorship of the men’s World Series. In 2011 the Women’s Sevens World Series began and by 2016 the men’s and women’s series came under the same umbrella with HSBC.
Now that we’ve caught up…
World Rugby estimate they have increased their global playing base by 500,000 in the space of a year, taking them to around 7.7m players. Women’s rugby is the fastest-growing area, with approximately 35% of all players. An estimated £20m has been dished out by National Olympic Committees to unions. All sounds pretty rosy.
This is at a time the men’s HSBC Sevens World Series has extended from nine legs to ten. During the 2015-16 season, stadium attendances increased to near 715,000 while broadcasters beamed out over 6,000 hours of footage to the masses too.
A deal was struck before that season with HSBC, meaning a four-year extension of sponsorship for the men’s series, while taking on the sponsorship of the women’s series too. Then, on top of that, in April of this year e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba signed a ten-year deal with World Rugby which they hope can use sevens as a developmental tool within the world’s second-largest economy, China. Rugby World have been assured by the game’s custodians that the deal is the biggest-ever investment injection in the development of the sport.
With the Olympics kicking off in August, the present is very exciting, if a little scary too. Sevens is guaranteed Olympic participation this year and again in 2020. Fail to be a hit and it may not be retained for 2024.
Shooting the breeze in a suite outside the Hong Kong stadium, it’s clear key decision-makers feel that pressure. “It’s potentially the most important year in rugby union’s history,” says Giles Morgan, HSBC’s global head of sponsorship. “Off the back of a very successful Rugby World Cup, commercially in any case, the game is in a strong place. But the sport, through sevens, can go (into new territories). The Olympics gives you the opportunity to be in front of a global audience, but if we and World Rugby, all the unions and stakeholders don’t use the opportunity just before, during and, most importantly, after the event, then people will switch off. It’s a great game, very entertaining, easy to understand – all the things we love about sevens – but we’ve got to then capitalise on that.”
From a purely marketing point of view, this year is huge. The short game has become more and more professional, although there are still disparities between the richest nations and the pauper unions, but there is a growing sense that a talent gap is closing globally – albeit much quicker and more noticeably in the men’s game – as the list of teams who can win tournaments grows. With investment, lesser lights can shine brighter. Twin that with rich outliers cottoning on to the game’s attractions and it’s enough to make you rub your hands. On these markets, Morgan leans forward.
“Clearly China is important because they invest so much in the Olympic movement, but I feel America is more important in the short term. The TV audience for the Olympics is colossal in the US, particularly with the NBC deal which does the broadcasting, but also because the time zone with Rio means it’s going to be good for US viewers. I’m delighted the US team genuinely are a strong sevens side. So the ingredients are there. The dream final for the men would be Fiji versus USA. Fiji having never won an (Olympic) medal and being one of sevens’ great teams, and the USA with its audience.”
That is certainly something USA coach Mike Friday would be delighted to hear. Having left English rugby in 2006 to work in the City of London, Friday returned to the sport in 2012 to coach Kenya. When asked what had changed in that time, in terms of rugby ability, he chuckles.
“People said to me, ‘The game’s changed, you’ll be old school.’ I thought, ‘Let’s see’. It is still about pass, catch, run, tackle. It’s about the basics of the game and being able to execute under pressure or fatigue – your core skills have to stand up under duress. That part hasn’t changed. The bit that’s evolved is the conditioning levels, and what’s expected in terms of power and physicality has gone through the roof. If you haven’t got the engine or the willingness to go to dark places, you won’t be a success in sevens. For an aspiring country, if they can get their conditioning right and work on technique, then start to understand the rugby intelligence part of it, they have a recipe to compete.” Okay. So what about Rio?
“Everyone recognises it’s so important. It’s difficult in Rio as it’s 12 teams, not 16 (like a World Series event). But that doesn’t mean it won’t be an exciting event. We want games going to the wire, we want upsets and all nations being able to win a medal – and that’s very much a possibility. Yes, everyone sees Fiji and New Zealand, Australia and South Africa as favourites, but my team can turn any of them over. Get out of your group, it’s the quarters. Win that, you’re one away from a final and it’s squeaky bum time! It will be truly mouth-watering.”
That is a belief held by the athletes. Some names from the men’s and women’s series have been heard in the press with increased frequency. But much coverage has revolved around ‘converts’ – Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams had a season to catch up with the game’s greats, while Aussie Quade Cooper fell by the wayside in his own attempt to go from 15s to sevens. Countless headlines worldwide were dedicated to NFL star Nate Ebner’s return to the game in which he represented the US as a teen and Aussie league phenomenon/one-season NFL player Jarryd Hayne’s late bolt for Fijian inclusion. A gold medal is a hell of a draw. Just ask South African Ryan Kankowski.
“I was talking to Gary Gold at the Sharks (Super Rugby 15s franchise) about a three-year deal,” says the 20-cap Springbok back-rower, “and the sevens option, coming into the Olympics, came up. It was once in a lifetime. I started my career in sevens, enjoyed a good running brand of rugby. Over the years that whole ‘bigger is better’ mentality has come in to 15s. I’m not a basher. Maybe I’m back to my roots.
“But it’s hard. I lost nine kilos in a few legs of the series. Sevens is just ridiculous! You can’t just come in and think it’s going to happen. In 15s you get around jogging. Yes, you work hard at times but there’s time to rest. In sevens you can’t. And you don’t want to come in a month before. You owe it to the team to give it a good shot, which is why I have given it six months.”
There’s the rub. Kankowski missed out on Olympic selection. Rugby sevens is a sport that boasts incredible athletes, honed over time for a game that now demands particular attributes. Some have noticed Australia’s women’s team of code-hoppers and touch players, but they have been hand-picked as part of a system. If the Games opens a door for more stars from other sports, they must be handled well. Like so much else.
It is something Friday chimes in with again. “It is all about what happens after the Olympics. What do World Rugby do to ensure that we make the most of the springboard? Do we get a second-tier men’s competition, enlarge the women’s championship, get a second tier there? Do we invest in the game around the globe? Then suddenly 2020 is even more competitive, because in Russia it goes into the curriculum. It’s the same with China – 2016 was probably too early for their kids, but in 2020, now we’re talking contenders. It’s big for North America. Get it in high schools and use it to complement American Football. Suddenly we have a credible alternative to the NBA, NFL or wrestling.”
Once more we return to the idea of planning for the future. An HSBC report released this year assessing the landscape also makes seven bold claims for the game of sevens in ten years’ time – that Tier Two and Three nations grow in stature; that ‘Big Bash’ cricket-style sevens tournaments become possible; that World Rugby’s 7.7m players double; that 40% of players worldwide will be female; that tech innovation will make the game even more attractive; that social platforms will overtake websites in the fight for our attentions; and that the game itself will dominate a space in the sporting calendar, generating rivalries and revenue streams.
With these, if we drill down into the predictions and the hopes, what can we truly foresee?
There is something reassuring about the words from the other end of the line. Gary Quinn, vice-president of programming at NBC Sports in the US, is explaining his love of sevens and it feels heart-warmingly genuine.
“If you’d told me ten years ago I’d be waking up at 5am to watch rugby, I’d say you were nuts!” he laughs. Rugby came on NBC’s radar when it became an Olympic sport. The Collegiate Rugby Championship has been televised too, and although it has been propped up to an extent by dedicated sponsorship, 2015’s edition averaged 615,000 viewers in its two NBC airings – a 7% increase from the 2014 contest, while viewing of the event on NBC Sports Network was up 27% in 2015. Quinn explains that NBC have also identified a window of opportunity to broadcast live sports – the lifeblood of any network – early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, thanks to the fierce popularity of English Premier League football. Their recent deal with Premiership Rugby means if there’s a black hole on those mornings, they can drop in intense club rugby.
Then there’s the series. The USA Sevens airings have a steady return, while NBC’s most-watched telecast to date was in January 2014, with 1.23m watching the Las Vegas finals.
If some predictions come true and new events sprout up on new platforms, perhaps with a flashy, Big Bash-style tournament, how likely would it be to get on US TV screens?
“It hasn’t been easy and we’ve had our challenges with rugby. You have to sell sponsorship and have viewers. The question is, ‘Does it match other programming content?’,” says Quinn.
“We’d be cautious of new platforms being developed – we’d need more proof in the pudding. We’re always looking at strategy. We’ve fallen in love with sevens but it’s how it performs with year-round coverage. We’re confident it can grow but it needs help. We’d be looking for the reception after the Olympics.”
Of course, one broadcaster has club sevens already on their plate. The Singha Sevens is broadcast on BT Sport, and according to Josh Smith, the commercial director for their rights portfolio, the sevens is a happy bonus to come with their Aviva Premiership coverage. But viewing figures year to year depend on a “number of moving parts” – chiefly what else is on at the time.
Cricket’s IPL, Smith says, is anchored in a domestic setting. It has a set place on the calendar and a buy-in from big names in other cricket formats. So do current seven stars see that sort of event coming into sevens?
Trying to relax on a couch at the reception of a heaving Twickenham Stadium in London, New Zealand Sevens captain Scott Curry considers breakaway tournaments.
“It’s definitely possible. Purely because some teams still aren’t getting paid very much at all to compete on the world stage. Some are really well looked after – ourselves, South Africa and England, for example – but some are still very amateur in how they are looked after. So if there was an IPL-style tournament it would get a lot of attention from players. It potentially could keep sevens talent in sevens too, and in a weird way it would be good for the game. It could stop guys from getting a contract to play 15s somewhere which can be too good to turn down. It could also offer a bit more security.”
For Curry, welfare must come into any thinking. “It’s a massive issue. Because sevens is so young and starting to ramp up, professionally and commercially, it’s about getting the balance between the player welfare and commercial side. The last series went from nine tournaments in seven months to ten tournaments in five. It’s just about getting that balance right. But if World Rugby get that right, we’ll be sweet.
“We’re getting there in terms of giving players a voice. Player reps meet up maybe a couple of times a year to voice our concerns, about what’s good about the tournaments and what’s not so good – how can we make it better for the players? I think we’re getting there.”
Curry is optimistic. He has signed on to remain with NZ Sevens well beyond Rio. Retired but commenting now is English hero Maggie Alphonsi, who is optimistic too. She competed in the first Women’s Sevens World Cup in 2009 and says the women’s game has come on hugely technically since then, with a prime indicator being the falling number of passes it takes to get the ball from one touchline to the other. But it’s also grown commercially and in terms of media coverage. The prediction from HSBC for women’s numbers swelling relies on current conditions for growth to be replicated every year for ten years. All must stay perfect.
“There has been so much change but now there needs to be more investment in the grass roots,” says Alphonsi. “I was in Kenya recently and there are some fantastic players there. But they need more coaches, volunteers.
“The great thing is that we’re now starting to hear more women speak about women’s rugby. There are strong role models – Sarah Goss, Jen Kish, Emily Scarratt – who have voices and opinions. It’s important that women are heard talking about the women’s game.”
Certainly it’s something HSBC and World Rugby are aware of. After Rio, World Rugby will be pushing for big changes according to Mark Egan, the head of competitions and performance. “The priority is to get the Women’s Series right, at World Series level, with at least six tournaments and then try to grow a men’s second-tier series around the men’s series, feeding into a qualification process for that series. So in two years’ time, I’d love to see three or four Tier Two tournaments sitting below the World Series, then six really good women’s tournaments, and to start building more cross-regional women’s events. So it’ll have to be a four-year plan leading into Tokyo 2020 or coming into a new cycle for the World Series in 2019.”
The blueprint is there. The bells and whistles can come after – computer games, tech, new competitions sold off the back of long-established sevens stars and complemented by converts. What is important is that after a first Olympic Games showing for sevens, what the sport already represents becomes stronger.
For a glorious six days this summer, sevens will own rugby. It is where we go from here that matters now. Will the game of rugby cross that next threshold?