x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Getting serious with the sevens format

The abbreviated version of game has come of age, and its growth has been spectacular, writes Paul Radley

A US player tackles a South African opponent during Dubai Rugby Sevens action.
A US player tackles a South African opponent during Dubai Rugby Sevens action.

It hardly matched the poisonous fall-out from Fifa's recent award of World Cups to Russia and Qatar, but last year's decision to grant Olympic status to rugby sevens - and golf - still provoked rumblings of discontent.

Chief among the gripes of the complainants was the fact that neither sport would regard Olympic gold as the pinnacle of achievement.

In golf, it would rank below all four majors, and plenty of other competitions besides, while rugby has its World Cup as the premier prize.

That theory assumes sevens is still seen as the same code as its 15-a-side brother.

Given its massive growth in recent years, which will only be expedited by the Olympic decision, the abridged version has never been further apart from 15s.

Hitherto, sevens was seen as a development tool at best, and an insignificant frippery at worst, for those not actively involved in it.

Now, with the carrot of Olympic gold on offer from 2016, it has become a serious business.

"It is exciting, but we are also being scrutinised more than we have been in the past," Ben Ryan, the England coach, said.

English rugby responded fast to the Olympic vote. A sevens series involving all 12 Premiership clubs was initiated for the first time this summer, and Ryan has also been able to centrally contract eight players for the first time.

"At the top end, you have to make sure you are getting close to winning every tournament so you are vindicating having centrally contracted players," he said.

"Now we are in the position that there will be an expectation back at home over the next 12 months that we should be in the hunt to win a world title.

"It certainly made the decision for the Rugby Football Union to invest and see it as a variant to take seriously and be successful at. The Olympic decision was the tipping point.

"If you are not trying to future-proof your programmes for the next four to six years, you really are going to be left behind."

It is not only traditional powers such as England and New Zealand who are benefiting. Much like the dichotomy between Twenty20 and Test cricket, sevens rugby allows smaller, developing nations to reach a competitive level with the established masters faster.

Countries like Kenya, Portugal and the United States are nondescript in the 15-man game, yet are established in the sevens sphere.

pradley@thenational.ae