It’s time for a sevens heaven again in Australian rugby
Australian Sevens Rugby. Image via IRB.com
The 2011/2012 IRB World Sevens Series tournament finished at Twickenham before world record crowds of over 100,000.
The huge crowds and the world-wide television audience for the event suggests that Sevens Rugby is going to become, within a few years, the cash cow and code-breaker for rugby union to explode in Asia, particularly, as well as in Africa, South America and eastern Europe.
New Zealand by winning its quarter final match against Argentina won its 10th World Series title. Fiji won the London tournament and, along with New Zealand, won three tournaments in the 2011/2012 round.
Australia also won its first World Series tournament for some years.
But, unfortunately, the tradition of Sevens brilliance created by David Campese, the Ellas and other greats like Tim Horan and George Gregan has lost its gloss over many years of failures.
So successful were the Australian teams at Hong Kong in the 1980s that a tradition of booing them from the bitter English ex-pats was created. That tradition is now only a memory of past glory days and nights.
New Zealand and Fiji are the tradition-setters now. And there have been many benefits for New Zealand from this. They have put in place a master-coach in Gordon Tietjens, who has just been awarded (and rightly so) a place in the IRB’s Hall of Fame. Tietjens has a handful of Sevens veterans and then introduces the best attacking and running talent from the schoolboy and junior ranks to complement them.
Many of these youngsters, most of them in fact, then go on to Super Rugby and some of them to Test rugby. The latest new potential All Blacks star is Julian Savea.
Eric Rush, arguably one of the greatest of Sevens players, once told me that the circuit was a perfect way of introducing young players to the rigours and pleasures of professional rugby. They had to learn to be professional in their approach to preparing for matches. Tietjens is a fanatic when it comes to aerobic fitness.
During the All Blacks 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign, the All Blacks coaches brought in Tietjens to put their squad through its fitness paces.
Rush told me, too, that on the field the youngsters learnt the value of making their tackles. There is nowhere on the field to hide a player if he is tackle-shy.
With their fitness levels finely honed, their skills sharpened and their defensive qualities well-developed, the graduates from the New Zealand Sevens campaigns are ready to be stars in the longer form of rugby and be propelled to its highest levels.
This used to happen in Australia but it no longer does. Some players like Bernard Foley come through the Sevens program but the Super Rugby franchises in Australia seem to be reluctant to use the talent that coach Michael O’Connor has been able to develop over the past few years.
It’s time, in my view, for all levels of Australian rugby to put together programs to restore Australian Sevens Rugby as the world force it use to be. This will create the virtuous circle of providing players to the Super Rugby franchises and the Wallabies, and also spread the message of Australian rugby to parts of the world that haven’t even heard of the Wallabies.
The difference between fifteens and sevens rugby is that the shorter form of the game can be played effectively by virtually any country that can get together several thousand players. Fifteens is elite rugby that really can only be played effectively by about 20 countries. There is nothing wrong with this. American gridiron and Australian Football are only one-country games.
Cricket is also played by only a handful of countries.
The strength of Sevens Rugby, though, is that it has the potential to create a world market for rugby. Next year the Rugby World Cup Sevens for men and women will be played in Moscow. The current men’s champions are Wales and the women’s champions are Australia.
And then, in 2016 at the Rio Olympics, rugby comes back to the Games. This will be in the Sevens rather than the 15s form, after a hiatus of 92 years.
Between 2009 and 2012, the IRB is investing 9 million pounds in the development of rugby, both in the fifteens and the sevens. Already this investment is paying off. Next year Sevens Rugby will be included in the China National Games for the first time. The event will be held in Guangzhou where a capacity crowd of 30,000 watched the Asian Games Rugby Sevens.
The various state rugby authorities in Australia have been extremely lax and short-sighted in their involvement in developing Sevens Rugby. They have generally left this task to the Australian Rugby Union or to individuals like Mark Ella to run invitational tournaments and the like. But Sevens Rugby is becoming so big it is incumbent on the unions to be far more pro-active than they have in the past.
I would like to make a couple of modest proposals. They apply in Sydney where I live but should be taken up by the various other unions around Australia.
Start a state Schools Sevens tournament? In New South Wales the tournament could be played over two days at St Joseph’s Hunters Hill with several teams from the other states invited to play. And maybe, I know its controversial, but some of the leading rugby league schools could be invited to play in the tournament.
NSWRU should put in place a club Sevens Tournament to take place a couple of weeks before the club championship starts. I reckon there would be sponsorship available for this and Fox Sports would be eager to televise the event.
I am sure readers of The Roar who are more involved with the administration of rugby will have more and better ideas than those I have put forward.
But we have to get the engine going somehow. It is time to crank up the Sevens Rugby game in Australia and to get it to the place where it was in the glory days of Australian Rugby in the 1980s.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.