Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Sevens returns to Dubai a sport surging, and changing, after golden Olympics

Ahead of the 2016 Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament, Paul Radley details how this summer's Olympic Games in Rio have left an indelible mark on the sport – and hastened its spread.
The Dubai Sevens tournament will be the first sevens showcase since the sport's rousing debut at the Rio Olympics this summer. Warren Little / Getty Images
The Dubai Sevens tournament will be the first sevens showcase since the sport's rousing debut at the Rio Olympics this summer. Warren Little / Getty Images

DUBAI // For the past seven years, the Dubai Rugby Sevens has been ushered in with fevered anticipation and the feeling that it is no longer just a staple of the UAE sporting landscape but a means to a far greater end.

When rugby’s abridged version was voted in to the Olympic movement in 2009, it changed the way the sport was thought about.

No one quite knew for sure what the Rio effect was going to be. But, in the years leading up to it, the 2016 Games was the driving force for everyone involved.

Players, coaches, administrators, sponsors: everyone was looking ahead to the summer of 2016. What came after was unclear, but that did not really matter. There were medals to win, legends to be created, and celebrities to be established.

It was no more fervid than last year, when Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam and Bryan Habana signalled their keenness to be involved. World Cup winners all, yet this was the Olympics. The lure of gold was – for a season at least – stronger than the lure of the lucre on offer in the XVs mainstream.

Michael Johnson, Olympic royalty, even came along to watch, with the side effect of inspiring one of the United States sevens team to try to do the double of competing on the track in Rio, as well as the rugby field.

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Now Rio has been and gone, what has changed? Everything, in truth.

The seven-year build up has ended and the next four-year cycle building towards Tokyo 2020 has begun. Sides are starting again, and it has brought with it an unprecedented amount of personnel changes.

Of the top nine countries on last year’s World Series, only four – South Africa, Argentina, United States and England – have the same coach as they did in Dubai 12 months ago.

Perhaps the weirdest of all is that Gordon Tietjens is not here this weekend. That is the first time that has happened since the World Series began. He was with the All Blacks Sevens for 22 years.

Beyond the teams involved in the series itself, the image of the game has been wholly altered.

The sight of Fiji’s players kneeling before Britain’s Princess Anne, as she draped the gold medal round their necks after the final, will endure in much the same way as that of Nelson Mandela handing over the World Cup to South Africa’s Francois Pienaar in 1995.

Maybe its social and political resonance was not quite so great, but more people will have seen it. The gold medal match was said to have had the largest global TV audience of any rugby match.

Naca Cawanibuka, the interim coach who is leading Fiji’s Dubai title defence this weekend, said: “It was a moment we will treasure for life. From the images of the cyclone that hit us back in February, the backgrounds of the players and their families, the trail of history that blazes behind them, to be on that platform broke us big men down to tears.”

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So many converts had been hooked by sevens at the Games. Daley Thompson, the great British Olympian decathlete, tweeted: “In my next life I may come back as a track cyclist … But only in evenings, as during the day I’m playing rugby sevens.”

He was not the only one who wanted a piece of it. According to a report released this month by Nielsen Sports, a sports measurement company, growth in interest in sevens saw the biggest increase following Rio 2016 of all sports.

“Interest grew in nearly all markets surveyed, resulting in an additional 16.83 million new fans of rugby sevens – with the largest growth coming in France, the United Kingdom and the USA,” the report stated.

Nearly 17 million new supporters. It is an extraordinary number. The findings have delighted rugby’s governing body, who reckon the number of people playing the sport has doubled since the Olympic vote back in 2009.​

Doug Langley, the operations manager for World Rugby Competitions, said they want to perpetuate the interest gained in Rio, starting in the UAE this weekend.

“We have to keep finding innovations and looking at how we deliver the tournaments, both for the spectators at the stadium, and the viewers watching from computers and TVs,” Langley said.

“It is very important that we keep developing that, and improving the playing environment for the teams.

“This weekend is important because we don’t want to lose the momentum that we have been building since Rio. It is a great event for us to start off with, because it is so established.”

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Changing lanes

Among the major nations on the sevens series, only Neil Powell (South Africa), England (Simon Amor), United States (Mike Friday) and Argentina (Santiago Gomez Cora) still have the same coaches from last season. Some of the changes have yet to be fully implemented, even.

Fiji (First in the World Series last season)

Ben Ryan took a career break after leading Fiji to the first sevens gold medal at the Rio Games. The Englishman’s full time replacement, Gareth Baber, will be staying in Hong Kong, where he currently coaches, until January. Naca Cawanibuka is in temporary charge.

New Zealand (Third last season)

Will Clark Laidlaw be the David Moyes to Gordon Tietjens’s Alex Ferguson? He certainly has the largest boots to fill imaginable. At least he has a while to think about it. He will not join from London Irish until summer 2017. Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama are holding the fort.

Australia (Fourth last season)

Australia’s Olympic bid was thrown into turmoil when Geraint John resigned in August 2015 to return to his native Wales. They arrived in Dubai with Tim Walsh temporarily overseeing both the men’s and women’s sides. Andy Friend has taken charge of the men now.

Kenya (Seventh last season)

Benjamin Ayimba was invited to reapply for the coach role he held last season, only for the Kenya Rugby Union to appoint Innocent Simiyu to the position last month instead. Simiyu knows what is what in Dubai, having captained Kenya here in the past.

Samoa (Ninth last season)

Gordon Tietjens was thought to be retiring after leaving New Zealand. Then he was announced as the new coach of Samoa, although he is on gardening leave until the start of 2017. Stephen Betham, who took Samoa to the 2009 series title, leads till Tietjens arrives.

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Updated: November 29, 2016 04:00 AM

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