x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The fans in the stands

An interesting mix of spectators flocked to The Sevens yesterday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the tournament.

Robert Aslett, from Dubai, sports an interesting choice of head wear to complement his Wasps shirt at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Robert Aslett, from Dubai, sports an interesting choice of head wear to complement his Wasps shirt at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.

Life begins at 40, or so my mother once told me. But while some people opt for botox, blusher and a bottle of hair dye, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens is thrilled to show its age, announcing its 40th birthday loudly and proudly to the manic masses.

The tournament's evolution from social sevens in the sand to an international event broadcast to a potential television audience of 750 million is well documented, but it is the fans in the stands that matter most to organisers. In excess of 37,000 spectators filled The Sevens' temporary terraces yesterday - 13,000 less than last year. But while the global recession may have affected the ticket office, those who did pay the Dh170 to attend showed no signs of a downturn-induced depression. They were in fine spirits. Never has there been an event held in the UAE where society and sport dovetails so beautifully. Horse racing's Dubai World Cup is a possible exception, but rather than the ball gowns and tuxedos that will be on display at Meydan next year, the sevens is seen as an opportunity to dress up in an entirely different way.

For every zealous New Zealand fan or impassioned Springbok spectator, there is a Ronald McDonald or a Freddie Mercury. For every team of travelling rugby-loving Kenyans, there is a group dressed as The Flintstones. England's Barmy Army alongside Bananaman. But there is a balance between socialising and sport that must be maintained. Nobody wants to play in front of empty stands and with the fun factor bringing new faces to the tournament each year, the additional activities on offer are therefore as essential as the 161 competitive teams' participation.

But at the same time, for the players - as one member of the Arabian Gulf revealed - it is disheartening to display guile and determination on the field, only to gaze up at the terraces and see thousands of "fans" engulfed in conversation. Most of the spectators you speak to claim their presence this weekend is down to a mixture of both rugby and revelling. The ones who chose one or the other, always opted for rugby. Nobody was willing to admit they were here solely for a social suntan. "I actually really like watching the games," said Athena Stockwell, who lives in Hong Kong and chose to wear an Oxford rugby jersey for her first Dubai Sevens.

"But all the social activities that go on around the event help." And it is true. People were still skipping through the entrance gates at way past 5pm, despite 75 per cent of the IRB matches having finished. Organisers will be well aware of the challenges they face in making sure the Dubai Sevens continues to evolve, but if the past 40 years are anything to go by, there is plenty life in the old dog yet.