After 18 years in Wellington, the HSBC New Zealand Sevens has shifted up north to Hamilton, Oliver Pickup reports.

HSBC New Zealand Sevens Relocates to Hamilton

The Maori title for Hamilton – the city chosen for this weekend’s HSBC New Zealand Sevens, after 18 years in Wellington – is ‘Kirikiriroa’. According to the local tourist office, Visit Hamilton, the name coverts as “long stretch of gravel”. Even factoring in that the original meaning is likely to have lost its essence in translation, this still massively undersells the country’s fourth most-populous city, and the largest in the North Island’s Waikato region.

In fact, Hamilton, the nation’s biggest inland city, straddles the nourishing Waikato River and has a rich agricultural and pastoral heritage. It’s not just green shoots poking through the gravel (possibly literally); the locals are “rugby mad”, Rugby New Zealand’s operations officer Nigel Cass insists, making the birthplace of British and Irish Lions honcho Warren Gatland ideal ground to cultivate the game of sevens.

Further, the population of the city is young (almost half of the 160,000 or so denizens are under the age of 30) and a pleasing hodgepodge of cultures, with more than 80 ethnic groups represented. All things considered, the Waikato Stadium – which will be at capacity, with all 23,600 seats for both Saturday and Sunday taken – is an ideal venue to host the HSBC New Zealand Sevens, which had turned stale after almost two decades in the capital.

From 2011 to 2016 the hosts won five out of six tournaments in Wellington, and two years ago – the last time they triumphed – Rugby New Zealand registered its first financial loss from the event, which cost them NZ2.5 million (£1.3m) to put on. The adage that “success breeds complacency … [and] complacency breeds failure” rings true, as Wellingtonians appeared to be unwilling to pay to watch their side romp to yet another victory.

Victors: New Zealand’s last victory in the Wellington Sevens was in 2016. (Photo by ActionPlus/Corbis via Getty Images)

This chance to refresh HSBC New Zealand Sevens comes at an opportune moment, when the sport is booming in the country, and across the world. Indeed, in January New Zealand Herald lauded the game’s recent upward trajectory – partly thanks to the inclusion in the Rio Olympics two years ago – in a report on growth sports in the country.  “The Olympics has been the catalyst for huge growth in the abbreviated version of rugby all over the world,” the article noted. “It has been one of the big growth areas in women’s sport due largely to the Olympic push and the success of the Black Ferns.”

The piece pointed out that in 2012 “a little over 2,800 kids represented their school playing rugby sevens in 2012 and that total had nearly doubled by 2016”. And World Series top-tier sponsor HSBC has certainly been playing a key role in spreading the game at grassroots level, with workshops and numerous initiatives across the globe.

Cass is confident that Hamilton has the ability to restore the event to its former glory, and expects an “exceptional tournament”. He says: “Hamilton and the Waikato region are rugby mad and we’re looking forward to introducing international sevens to the local community and for visiting fans from around New Zealand to experience the heart of rugby in New Zealand.”

It looks a canny move to switch the point of focus for New Zealand sevens fans, with 40 per cent of ticket sales having been snapped up by non-Hamilton residents. Legendary former New Zealand captain DJ Forbes – the most-capped player in the sport who retired last September after his 89th tournament – says it will serve to motivate native current and future players.

Legend: All blacks Sevens legend DJ Forbes retired last September, and says the Hamilton move will motivate the players (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images for HSBC)

The 35-year old told me this week that Tim Mikkelson, the team’s co-captain, and Joe Webber, and Regan Ware – all players born in the area – are “buzzing” ahead of the Hamilton event. Now, finally, they have the opportunity to shine in front of their nearest and dearest, as well as inspire a generation of youngsters close to home.

“For nations that don’t have a home tournament, winning in Hong Kong will gain the bragging rights,” Forbes tells Rugby World, “but success as hosts is a massive target. The boys – particularly the local lads – will be thinking all about how to get the job done during the next 48 hours or so, and I think they are in a really good place to do that.”

After three rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, Clark Laidlaw’s side are second in the standings, only four points behind reigning champions South Africa. Last weekend they were downed in the Sydney quarter-finals against Australia, the eventual winners.

And Forbes – who has earmarked 18-year olds Caleb Clarke (the son of former All Black Eroni Clarke) and Etene Nanai-Seturo as ones to watch this weekend – believes his countrymen should follow their trans-Tasman rivals’ example, and allow themselves to be lifted by the home crowd rather than submit to pressure, which is easier said than done.

Young Star: 18-year-old Caleb Clarke has been picked by DJ Forbes to shine in Hamilton (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

“You couldn’t ask for a better situation, the first year after Wellington,” he adds. “The stage has been set perfectly in Hamilton. It’s a full house, and now we need the players to turn it on for the spectators.”

If Laidlaw’s side do triumph this weekend, it will more than pour gravel over the cracks exposed by Wellington’s lengthy legacy; it will provide Rugby New Zealand with a robust foundation to further build upon to elevate its already impressive sevens operation. With the Commonwealth Games and World Cup to be contested in the coming months, other countries should be worried that the once-mighty nation is rising again.