Follow the Sevens brick road, if you can find it
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The Fiji team celebrate their victory over New Zealand in the final match of the IRB Sevens rugby tournament. AFP PHOTO / Patrick Hamilton
Question: If a 13 or 14-year-old Australian boy or girl decided that rugby Sevens was their ticket to the Olympics, what exactly are the pathways involved in getting there?
I first asked this question on Twitter about a month ago out of curiosity, and it was the response I received that prompted this piece being put together today.
Though I didn’t receive any answers of knowledge and experience, it was fascinating to see the number of, “Good question, I’d be interested to know that too” replies that came back.
Everyone clearly knows that the inclusion into the Olympic program means that there is a new genuine career pathway in Sevens rugby now available, but quite how you get there is not so well known.
Outgoing ARU CEO, John O’Neill, laid out the big plans and expectations for Sevens back during the Olympics, boldly declaring, “We will have serious gold medal ambitions. It will be a rugby-led revival in Rio.
“We will see a significant uplift in the attention, finance and development to the sevens program. We will look at creating a squad of full-time sevens players.”
That, of course, is not too different to what is in place already. Australian Sevens coach, Michael O’Connor, has had a squad of specialists under his watch for several years as they travel the world playing in the IRB World Series, the new season of which kicked off this weekend just gone on the Gold Coast.
Well-known legs in Wellington, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, and Dubai, among others, are also on the itinerary.
So, wondering how this development will take place, and interested to know what the pathways are, I fired off some emails to the ARU and the five states, which are obviously the key areas where the game is played in Australia.
Happily, I received detailed responses from Queensland, Western Australia, and a very enthusiastic Victoria. The ACT got back to me too, but only to advise that any local development is done under the guise of the ARU High Performance Unit, who have a couple of development guys based at Brumbies HQ.
Disappointingly, I received no response from New South Wales at all.
The ARU themselves got back to me initially, and were quite happy to provide a response, but I suspect that developments late last week surrounding their boss moving on may have taken priority.
For what it’s worth, the states that did respond all suggested that the development work and promotional activities around Sevens undertaken by the national body HPU are generally very well done, which is excellent to hear. Other people involved in promotion of individual tournaments that I spoke to said the same thing.
Perhaps the best example of this – aside from the Gold Coast event, obviously – is the recent camps and trial road shows held around the country hoping to unearth the next wave of female players. From all reports, some very talented girls from all kinds of sporting backgrounds have been discovered.
Here’s what I found out from three simple questions.
1. Does [ARU/State] have documented pathways that are publicly available for aspiring and talented young players to follow, and if so, what are they?
Collectively, the answer here appears to be ‘no’. While the ARU website features a dedicated Sevens section, and it does include a plethora of news and information about Sevens tournaments around Australia, there’s nothing that a young player could point to and say, ‘OK, this is how I can get there.’
Likewise, the state websites carry snippets of news from local Sevens carnivals and events too, but no documented pathways as such. Certainly, the pathways are there around the country, and the states are rightly proud of what they’re doing to introduce kids to the game via Sevens, but perhaps more needs to be done make these pathways more widely recognised and accessible.
For the moment at least, it would seem our kids just need to be playing the game in some shape or form, and to then participate in the various school and age-group carnival and tournaments that are held. And if they show some promise, the Sevens people will spot them and introduce them to the HPU programs.
2. Can junior players (male and female) participate in regular, dedicated Sevens competitions for age groups in [each State]?
From all the responses I received, and even where I didn’t, it seems that the main vehicle for age group Sevens participation is through stand-alone carnivals and events, rather than regular competition.
Queensland have quite an extensive schoolboy competition structure in place, known as the Queensland Schoolboy Sevens Championships (the Q7s, from U12 to U18s), which comprise the best schoolboy teams in the state to have qualified through the various Q7s Regional Carnivals.
The Q7s are held in the lead-up to the Gold Coast IRB event. The Q7s winners go onto an ARU-run National Schoolboy Championships, and both events in the past two years have been won by Keebra Park High.
Queensland also introduced a Try Sevens program in 2011, which is also run in the lead-up to the Gold Coast tournament. Evidently my enquiries last week were well-timed, and the Queensland Rugby Union were understandably keen to tell me, “A record 16,297 students from 68 schools signed up to take part in the 2012 Try Sevens program, a 30 percent increase on the 12,495 students who participated in Try Sevens during its inaugural year in 2011.”
WA currently host events for both boys and girls, and across numerous age groups right up to U18s, who play for the James Stannard Cup, and the Debby Hodgkinsons Cup, both named for noted Western Australians to have played Sevens internationally.
Interestingly, RugbyWA also run Northern, Central, and Southern Primary Schools Sevens carnivals for Under-10s, 11s, and 12s age groups, which is great to hear just for the logistics that must be involved in running programs in the south and Perth right up to Newman, Broome, Karratha and Port Hedland as they do.
In Victoria, their Rebel Rugby development officers run cross-field Sevens events across the Melbourne metro regions, and these culminate in the School X Field State Championships.
Additionally, there is the Victorian Schools rugby union 7s competition, “our Private School competition which is akin to the GPS or CAS in NSW” and which is run at the beginning of the season. The winner of this will progress to the National Schoolboy Championships on the Gold Coast.
I know that there are several primary school and age group Sevens carnivals are run in the ACT, and the ARU Sevens website makes mention of several primary school Sevens competitions that were run across the Sydney area in September.
3. Does [ARU/State] have plans for regular school or club-based Sevens rugby competition in the coming few years?
Across the board, there is certainly a desire to have more Sevens competitions in place, be that through increasing the number of school- or age-based carnivals, or through the creation of regular junior and senior club competitions, even if as a pre-season thing.
All the responses acknowledge the role Sevens plays in introducing the game of rugby to kids in general. Queensland’s General Manager of Game Development, David Hanham, sees the prospect of growing the game through Sevens like this:
“Sevens Rugby provides significant opportunity for growth in our game and in its status as an Olympic sport for both men and women, participation across Queensland will continue to climb, as will the code’s opportunities.”
Down in Victoria, General Manager of Rugby Operations, Josh Philpot, echoed a similar theme, while also pointing to the need to work in conjunction with the ARU:
“We see 7s as a huge opportunity for developing and growing the game in Victoria and also another opportunity for our young players to reach their dreams of professional rugby, whether it be 7s or 15s. At this point in time, the pathway must be, and is, synonymous with the ARU pathway. The evolution to this will be increased focus and resources as a sampling and intro tool, and elite development.”
For the time being at least, the main vehicle for Sevens in Australia is going to be through the weekend tournaments, like those run in Darwin, Noosa, Queanbeyan, Byron Bay, Kiama and so on, but clearly more can be done to lift the profile of these events.
Craig Morgan, the Tournament Director for the upcoming Central Coast 7s, gave the ARU HPU guys a big wrap for their assistance and availability, but mirrored my own disappointment with the NSWRU:
“.. they are unfortunately inactive on the Sevens front in the eyes of many, but this coincides with NSW generally being viewed as Sydney-centric and having lost engagement with many within NSW … I don’t see why NSW and all Super Rugby franchises shouldn’t get behind Sevens in the interest of the overall game. If such bodies thought outside the square and embraced Sevens, [they'd see] it creates another major platform to attract participants to the game at all levels.”
While the concept of ‘more can be done’ is hardly a new one in Australian rugby, I was still pleasantly surprised at the amount of activity around the country to grow the game through the Sevens format. Obviously, some states are doing more than others are, but I’m also really happy to hear that the ARU are leading the way, too.
So the message for the 13 and 14 year-old boys and girls out there is to get involved however you can. Ask the question of your school, or your local club, and find out where and when your local carnival or Sevens event is held.
Sevens definitely can be your ticket to the Olympics, and indeed a career in rugby, but the pathway isn’t quite as obvious as following a yellow brick road. A pathway of sorts is there, though, even if you have to do a little bit of digging.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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