x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A good time was had by all at the Dubai Sevens

More than 90,000 fans enjoyed a giant party in Dubai. And the rugby was splendid, too.

South Africa fans enjoy the party action in the packed stands at the Dubai Sevens.
South Africa fans enjoy the party action in the packed stands at the Dubai Sevens.

It has grown year-on-year for the past four decades and this weekend attracted in excess of 90,000 spectators. Yet the question continues to arise: is the Dubai Rugby Sevens the greatest sporting event on the social calendar or the greatest social event on the sporting calendar?

A brisk circumnavigation of the sprawling Sevens venue off Emirates Road produces sights more similar to that of the Glastonbury music festival in England than Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg.

An able-bodied man in a wheelchair is pushed around like Andy from the television comedy Little Britain, a group of women are dressed as Where's Waldo - complete with trademark thick-rimmed spectacles - and a trio of men parade around in tinsel wigs and hot-pants.

It is safe to say this is not the same crowd who donned spiked shoes for last month's Dubai World Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates.

However, step inside the stadium and the festival atmosphere has a focal point in the rectangular shape of a pristine rugby pitch.

Sixty countries from around the globe are doing battle to be crowned champions of the season-opening HSBC Sevens World Series event and many of the spectators are wearing their hearts on their face. Even those who do not fully appreciate or understand the sport, know who they are supporting.

St George's crosses, Argentine stripes and the odd UAE flag adorn the skin of young children, while older fans sit reading the official programmes and twenty-somethings throw around blow-up kangaroos and inflatable springboks.

In the DHL Stand, Marcus van der Pleek, a South African, explains why he waits all year for the chance to attend the Sevens. "What's not to love?" he says. "The best sport in the world, played in the sunshine, surrounded by thousands of people all in high spirits. There is no beating the Sevens really; nothing else comes close."

Melissa Naylor, an American mother of three, watches the action from the sidelines with her husband and youngest daughter. Naylor has lived in the Emirates for two years and enjoys the country's varied sporting calendar. But she agrees that nothing matches the Sevens for its raucous, party atmosphere.

"The local population love football, so that's totally different," she says when asked about her experience of last year's Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. "And tennis fans are predominantly American, British and European - they are a little more reserved. The Sevens crowd is more South Africans and Aussies and, while they love the sport, it can get wild."

Naylor's observation might scratch at the surface of why this year's inaugural Soccer Sevens - held at the same venue, but attracting a fraction of the spectators - failed to capture the imagination of the population.

Donal Kilalea, tournament director of both events, prefers to look elsewhere for explanation.

"The Rugby Sevens has been going for a very long time, remember - 41 years," Kilalea said. "This year we had 160 teams come in just for the invitational event and we obviously have the 60 IRB [International Rugby Board] teams as well, which is crucial. For the football, it is different. It started locally then, in time, it will develop."

Kilalea appreciates that not all 91,000 spectators who passed through the gates this weekend were rugby fanatics. He cites the evolution of the entertainment village as a key factor in the continual success of the tournament.

"We know we have the world's best rugby, but what is critical is that we provide more things to do in the village for the children. We need to enhance the experience for the public and make it easier for them to enjoy themselves."

This year saw the introduction of, among other things, a bucking bronco and a climbing wall and for those too old to enjoy such activities, the prerequisite food and drink tents provided alternative ways to pass the time. The Sevens is a sporting event, but it is clearly not only for sport lovers.

Johanna Handley, a 31-year-old Briton, has lived in Dubai for three years and attended all three World Series events as well as the Sevens World Cup, which was held in the emirate in 2009. But, dressed as a bull and playfully chased around by friends dressed as matadors, she happily confirms she has no interest in the sporting side of the weekend.

"As a social event, it is just fantastic; it's the one weekend of the year where everyone goes crazy," she said. "I probably shouldn't admit this, but I've been four times and have never seen a rugby ball."

When sport and socialising can be so easily confused, everyone is a winner. And if that is the answer, the 41-year-old question is irrelevant.