x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Women's game the key Olympic sevens

Rugby sevens is up against baseball, softball, golf, karate, squash and roller-sports for two places in the 2016 Olympic programme.

Fans of New Zealand wait for the team's next match to start at the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
Fans of New Zealand wait for the team's next match to start at the Rugby World Cup Sevens.

DUBAI // "If rugby sevens were to get into the Olympics, the women's game would explode," the England women's coach Simon Amor predicted yesterday as teams started play in the inaugural Women's Rugby World Cups Sevens championship. On other occasions, some of the male players and spectators may have regarded the female game as little more than a sideshow. This time, however, they have ample reason to take notice.

The tournament could be crucial in deciding whether rugby sevens will feature in the 2016 Olympics. For that to happen, the watching members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will need to be convinced that the women's game is viable at the international level. Rugby sevens is up against baseball, softball, golf, karate, squash and roller-sports for two places in the Olympic programme. Long considered a poor relation to men's rugby, the women's game is at last finding the numbers beginning to add up. Eighty-seven men's teams contested in qualifying rounds for the chance to play in Dubai; 83 countries mustered a women's side and 16 won places at the World Cup.

Amor, who captained England's men to four successive Hong Kong sevens titles and two London titles, knows a lot is at stake. "The decision by the IRB to bring the women's game into this World Cup is the perfect motivation for the girls, who are not full-time sportswomen and who all work long hours to make the sacrifices required and to become the athletes they are," he said. He and his fellow coach, Mike Friday, had been involved in the women's game for just 15 months, he added. "When I think about how much these girls have improved in 12 months and I think about where they would be in 10 years if women's rugby were to really take off, it's so exciting."

England may not be professional yet but compared with some countries they are giants. Uganda, who sealed their place in Dubai at the Africa qualifiers, can barely round up enough players for a league. "We know we are a small team and we have just played one of the best in the world," Helen Buteme, the Ugandan captain, said yesterday after her team's 50-0 drubbing by New Zealand, the fourth seed in the tournament.

"Women's sport in general is not big in Uganda and women's rugby is not developed. We have had a sevens programme since 2004 and in fact it's the only women's rugby programme because we can't raise enough players for 15 a side." Buteme, a research scientist, said women's rugby in Uganda needed greater exposure. "Girls only find out about rugby by accident," she said. "People find it strange. They think we are weird and say it's a man's game ... Now we have earned the right to play for our country I hope attitudes will change."

Gordon Tietjens, New Zealand's men's coach who is widely renowned as one of the best in the business, was at pitchside for Uganda v New Zealand; his presence underlining the regard his country has for the women's game. "It has been a long time coming I would say. The sport is well-established in New Zealand, but many of these other sides need the boost of an event like this to work towards every four years. From here the women's game can only go up."

The women's tournament, under the patronage of Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is running alongside the men's Rugby World Cup Sevens event in Dubai. Women's play continues today with the quarter-finals, semifinals and finals. The winning team is to be crowned by Princess Haya. stregoning@thenational.ae