Dubai Sevens: Schedule change provides 'difficult challenge' at tournament's 50th edition
Men's World Sevens Series was for the first time played over three days, and received mixed reviews from the players
This year’s Dubai Rugby Sevens might have been a celebration of its glorious past, but the 50th edition of the much-loved event had some significant new features, too.
Some that will take a little bit of getting used to, if this weekend was anything to go by.
Most obviously, having men’s World Sevens Series matches on the Thursday, and thus extending that particular tournament to three days, was a break from the norm for the Sevens. For both spectators and players, it jarred.
Whenever the Pitch One floodlights have been on for world series matches in the past, the air has usually been thick with anticipation, the scaffolding stands packed, and the atmosphere uproarious.
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That was not the case on Thursday evening. There were as many gaps in the stands as might usually be found for the early matches on a Friday or Saturday. And that despite admission being free.
The loudest voices were mostly those of the players, shouting instructions and calling plays.
The elite international players are no strangers to the three-day format. Hong Kong usually hums on the first evening of its three-day tournament.
Even at The Sevens Stadium itself, there has once been a three-day version involving the world series teams. That was in the 2009 Sevens World Cup, the event for which this venue was built.
But, just as it was 10 years later for the annual sevens festival, the atmosphere for the first evening of that World Cup was more eerie than effervescent.
It might not exactly be a protest, per se. But Thursday has until now always been a day when the thousands of players involved in invitational teams can focus on themselves.
No matter how visible the stars of sevens have become, the amateur players are still the heartbeat of the Dubai tournament. Long may that continue.
The men’s international players said Thursday had felt odd, as they had to find things to do to kill time before their evening matches.
“It was hard the first night, because the crowd was a little bit disappointing,” said Scott Curry, the co-captain of the outgoing champions New Zealand after they lost the final.
“It was free entry, but they still struggled to get numbers. But overall, as a structure, it wasn’t too bad to be honest.
“It felt similar to Hong Kong, with obviously a long break on Day Two. That is hard, but we can deal with that. Hong Kong sell out all three days. It was definitely a lot quieter here.
"It doesn’t really affect us, but it is always good fun when you run out to a big crowd. I think the boys enjoy it more, but I don’t think it affects how we play at all.”
Photos from Dubai Sevens Women's World Series final
The second leg of the tournament, which is next weekend in Cape Town, will also be the same format.
The other seven legs – outside of Dubai, Cape Town and Hong Kong – will all be played over two days.
“It is a reality of what we are going to face this season, so mentally we need to prepare ourselves for that,” Neil Powell, the coach of champions South Africa, said.
“It is similar to Hong Kong. One year in Hong Kong we played England in the very last game of Day One at 8pm, and it is a difficult challenge.
“I think mentally more than physically, it causes some teams to be flat. It is a long day, and to play a high-intensity game like sevens, it is difficult to get yourself up, but we need to prepare ourselves for it.”
One thing the rejigged schedule did mean was that all the Women’s World Series fixtures were played on Pitch One.
Their cup final was also given a share of top-billing on the Sunday night, as the penultimate match, with just the men’s final to follow. In the recent past, the women's final has been played on a Friday.
According to Hessa Al Hammadi, an Emirati player for Al Maha in the Gulf Under 19s girls tournament, having all the women’s series matches on the main show-field is a big thing.
“Seeing how they play inspires us,” Al Hammadi said. “We are learning from them. We are seeing things that we didn’t know, learning what might cause us to give a penalty that we didn’t know about before.
“It makes us think we can be like this, Inshallah, after a few years. Why not?”
Updated: December 8, 2019 04:41 PM