The former England Sevens captain looks at the questions surrounding the abbreviated game – and offers some answers
Rob Vickerman on the future of sevens
Questions have been building for some time as to the direction and role of sevens, specifically with European teams, writes former England Sevens captain Rob Vickerman. Does it need to be part of a national programme? How else could it be used? Could it/would it flourish with independence from unions?
The main complication to a nationally-represented World Series debate is also the biggest draw: the Olympics. There are few greater sporting honours than being an Olympian, meaning national sides are in a cycle to peak every four years. This is now the driver for creating programmes and developing players – and is vital to players remaining in ‘the system’ when more lucrative routes may be attainable.
However, ‘the system’ looks different for each nation. Some programmes are full-time, others part-time, a couple are reasonably funded and most critically underfunded. Olympic federations usually intervene only when qualification is likely or secured. This complicates how teams can be governed and funded, as it mixes agendas, politics and policies.
Frustratingly, this all poses more questions than solutions. For example, why is sevens used as a ‘development pathway’ by countries when it has a seat at the biggest and best sporting table?
I believe sevens is a standalone sport. It needs to capitalise on some of the brilliant cards it has been dealt and progress without needing World Rugby to install financial stabilisers.
Any fan at a sevens event witnesses the most incredible action on the field, often matched by that of the crowd – with imagination capable of challenging Lady Gaga’s stylist. Yet three days of sevens is too long for most stakeholders – fans, TV audiences, host broadcasters.
The only model to successfully implement this is Hong Kong. They produce a £15m turnover at a bucket-list activity for any fan of entertainment (rugby, or even sports, knowledge is optional). But Hong Kong is unique – a global hub that is perfectly matched to the frenetic nature of sevens; it’s not a sprint nor a marathon – it’s a sprint marathon. The event is based around a party, rugby is the loose theme.
World Rugby and host unions try to replicate this model, but at times series legs self-implode by having 28 men’s and women’s teams competing before events have the foundations to sustain it.
A potential solution would be to slim down the teams – 12 men’s and eight women’s – to make events more palatable, cost-effective and logistically less strained; less is more.
There are simply not enough competitive women’s games between the top and bottom thirds of rankings, and stints on the developmental HSBC Challenger Series for those outside the top tiers would provide the time to grow the game and talent in these nations. The men’s game has seven or eight teams that are consistently competitive, and the nature of 12 teams would lend well to Team GB competing.
I’d also pitch a double elimination format, a series of knockout matches that incorporate a ‘second chance’, so increasing the drama of each game but reducing the number of games.
Play a Friday night round to hit the corporates and party-goers, and a full-throttle, mixed-crowd Saturday. Interspersing the latter-staged games with entertainment would make it akin to a festival with sport, rather than of sport, and a spectacle many enjoy – both live and for all-important television audiences.
Rugby X signified how to do rugby differently: five-a-side with rolling subs and incredible pyrotechnics resulting in an electric atmosphere. Now we need to look at how sevens could be fine-tuned.
Ned Haig invented sevens in 1883 to raise funds, entertain and do something differently – and with the pandemic accelerating a quest for many unions to seek their sevens identity, there is no better time to return to that mantra.
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This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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