Over the past decade, rugby sevens has grown from a game used to keep players fit over summer to a sport played right around the world and contested at the highest level, the Olympic games.
Both men and women are flocking to the short version of the 15-man game and the wider sporting community has taken noticed.
This weekend, Sydney will host a leg of the World Series for the second straight year, with Australia’s gold medal winning women’s side set to play on home soil for the first time since their Rio success.
It’s hard to argue that sevens has been the shining light for Australian rugby in recent years, but where does that leave the rest of the sport? With participation rates in the traditional XVs format in decline, is it time to jump ship and join Cricket’s Big Bash bandwagon? Or will Sevens continue to draw new fans and participants to our sport and revitalise the code as a whole?
Last year, HSBC, the major sponsor of the Sevens World Series and a long-term supporter of rugby commissioned a report titled ‘The Future of Rugby’.
If you can, it’s well worth reading the entire report online, which includes a handful of bold predictions for the sport’s progress in the next decade, including:
• Countries with little rugby tradition will become internationally competitive, certainly at sevens.
• The overall number of players—and the proportion of female players—will double.
• The higher profile of sevens will create new national competitions between clubs or franchises.
• Sevens will emerge as a summer sport in its own right.
• Audiences will change—and they’ll connect with the sport in new ways.
On a domestic front, HSBC invited some of Australian rugby’s biggest names to discuss and debate the report and the future of the game late last year.
Hosted by Greg Clark, HSBC CEO Tony Cripps, ARU boss Bill Pulver, Wallabies captain Stephen Moore, Aussie women’s coach Tim Walsh and players Emilee Cherry and Cam Clark were all asked where they thought the sport was heading.
With two of the three days sold out for this weekend’s Sydney 7s, Pulver said the tournament was the perfect way to start the rugby season.
“It gives us a remarkable opportunity to grow the game. 50% of the people that attended the Sydney sevens event last year had never been to a test match. 85% of the organisations that bought hospitality at the event have never bought hospitality at rugby, so it's a brand new dimension,” he said,
“Clearly what we’re hoping is that as sevens leads to growth in the game, people will graduate not only to just watching sevens but ultimately to XVs as well.”
Commercially, Sevens is also a big hit with the sponsors and like Cricket’s Big Bash, attracts a younger audience.
“We’ve sponsored XVs and Sevens for a long time now but what Sevens does is it takes the great traditions of rugby and broadens the appeal of the game as a whole,” HSBC CEO Tony Cripps said.
“We know that half of our clients if we survey them, say they love rugby, the other half maybe like it. Sevens brings a new audience, the millennials and that broadens the appeal of the game and aligns in the growth and the international network of our business.”
So with the popularity and commercial support of Sevens on the rise, should Australia’s best players, or those just behind them, begin focussing more of the shorter form? Or will modern players soon be able to slip seamlessly between the two games?
“Being a good sevens player is only going to make you a better XVs player. I think the success of Sevens, it’s mutually beneficial to both versions of the game,” Australian women’s coach Tim Walsh said.
Walsh played Super Rugby for the Queensland Reds and represented Australia on the Sevens World Series before leading Australia to its first Olympic rugby gold medal last year.
“Sevens is probably more technical. Around the line out and the scrum it’s probably more technical in XVs but everything in sevens is magnified and you can’t just be a one-skill player. You need to be a jack of all trades and a master of some.
“Every decision you make on a sevens field is going to have some pretty big consequences. You’ve only got seven minutes each half to play, in XVs you have a lot longer. I think technically you have to be a more rounded player.”
Wallabies captain Stephen Moore agreed that playing sevens does benefit some XVs players, but added that the free flowing style didn’t suit all rugby players.
“The big thing I guess from a XVs point of view is tight five players are probably the group that aren’t in that category that could play both, so if we’re trying to develop tight five players, front rowers and locks, sevens probably isn’t the answer,” Moore, who has never played sevens, said.
“Set piece and the tight five are a very important part of XVs, particularly at test level and we need to make sure that we still have a culture in Australia of developing tight five players at club level through to the professional game.”
HSBC’s report predicted that by 2026, 40% of rugby players worldwide would be female. After winning Olympic gold last year, Emilee Cherry has seen a huge spike in interest in women’s sevens, something she said would never have been possible five years ago.
“There’s no way I would have believed that in three or four years women’s sport in Australia would be as big as it is at the moment. Now we go to the Olympics, which is absolutely huge for us and hopefully we can capitalise on that in the next few years.
“We saw that when we became professional, training full time at Narrabeen, that year we became a more consistent team and we ended up second on the World Series and then we won the World Series and the Olympics in 2016. I don’t think that would have happened if we weren’t professional.”
Sevens has also helped rugby infiltrate a number of lucrative overseas markets. Cam Clark represented Australia on the World Series for four seasons before joining the Waratahs late last year to pursue a XVs career.
“I think more recently, I’ve sort of realised the impact sevens can have, especially in those tier two and tier three nations. The first year you’d go into a tournament and draw a Portugal or a Japan in your first game and you’d sort of think it’s an easy win and look at the second game straightaway.
“Whereas now you go into a tournament and there are really no easy games any more. We’ve seen the growth and development in those teams over the last four or five years and more recently at the Olympics you saw Japan make the semi-finals.”
So what’s next for sevens and XVs rugby and where will the code be in 10 years time? Let us know your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter using #futureofrugby.