It’s a fair bet that in another generation sevens will be the premiere form of rugby union. It’s halfway there already and will take a giant leap with its inclusion in the Olympics.
Sevens is to rugby what Twenty20 is to cricket – the showtime end of the business. The fast and furious version for those whose attention span is truncated, or for those who like a lot of partying alongside a little sport.
When rugby went professional in the 1990s sevens got lost in the dust as the 15-a-side game wallowed in new found wealth. It seemed as if sevens would never crack the international circuit and simply remain as a jolly form of recreation for a bunch of dedicated amateurs.
Thanks to the persistence and organisational skills of those who built the Hong Kong tournament, it escaped from the bonds of amateurism and, year by year, its level of organisation, skills and promotion have got better and better.
Many rugby enthusiasts who couldn’t quite take sevens seriously began to see a distinctive new game emerge, with subtly different tactics and skill sets. Sponsors and television broadcasters woke up to its fast and furious pulling power. Now it’s a big international game in its own right and with the Olympics fast approaching the queue of established 15-a-side stars trying to gain admission to their national sevens team is rapidly lengthening. Even a few prominent league players are optimistically knocking on the door.
This of course causes a certain amount of discomfort to the sevens community. Most international squads are very tight-knit outfits with their own team culture and tactical systems which are not that easily absorbed by players who haven’t consistently played sevens. It will be interesting to see if the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith, Brian Habana or Julian Savea can force the door open next year.
There are however more pressing complications. One of these is the ambush inflicted in New Zealand by the rugby league nines, a blatant invasion of the same razzle-dazzle space occupied by the Wellington Sevens tournament, and cleverly scheduled a week before the big event at the Cake Tin.
This quite clearly has had a damaging effect on the attendance in Wellington. Many punters, particularly in Auckland, faced with a choice of one code or the other opted for the newer tournament. There is now much gnashing of teeth in Wellington over its ability to fill the stadium if this competition persists.
But the storm clouds over Wellington are darker than that. The truth is, the novelty of the Wellington event has worn thin. Many of those who go along purely for the party have grown tired of the sevens weekend and are now looking for a fresher fix. This large component of the crowd who go less for the rugby than for the opportunity to dress up and get plastered have new parties to go to and they haven’t appreciated being frisked at the gate and promptly arrested if they overstep the behavioural line. Many others have resolved not to go along anymore because they want to watch the rugby rather than an army of drunken twenty-somethings living it up.
Perhaps the answer is to rotate the tournament around larger cities, spreading the novelty instead of trying to constantly refresh the party experience every year. There is little sign of that happening in New Zealand.
Instead, all hope seems vested in watching All Black superstars competing next year in the run-up to the Olympics. That might work for 2016, but then what?
There is more than a hint or two that the same party fatigue is beginning to affect other venues around the international circuit. The crowds are still good but there’s a gnawing suspicion that in the absence of new tricks to satisfy the limited attention spans of the younger punters the same thing will happen. If you take the party away you have to rely exclusively on the footy.
That is why the game’s elevation to Olympic status is so crucial. Sevens is going to have to rely on a spectator base that is more sports than party-oriented, and it is going to need every sports fan it can muster.
Fortunately, the game has become so continuous, so inherently spectacular and so television friendly that a serious spectator base is there to be tapped with the right promotion.