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Magnificent Sevens

21 October 2015

Sevens has long been considered the poorer cousin of rugby’s 15-a-side form. But with sides from all over the world competing at events such as the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, not to mention its Olympics bow under a year away, sevens is gaining some serious traction

October 9, 2009 is probably the biggest moment in the history of rugby sevens. On a bright day in Copenhagen, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to include the sport in the Olympics, with its first appearance scheduled the Rio games in 2016.

While that moment was a momentous day for the sport, for those who follow it around the world, it’s clear that it has been a growing force for many years, not least because of the World Rugby Sevens Series – whose opening tournament just happens to be next month in Dubai. The series then globe hops to nine other locations including Vancouver, Hong Kong and Singapore. It is the 17th edition of the league, and, crucially, the last before sevens rugby takes its Olympics bow.

Far from Olympic glamour or exciting events held in the bright lights of major cities, sevens has a rather more austere history, spanning over 130 years to the first match played by an amateur side from Melrose, Scotland. It took another four decades for the sport to spread south into England, and in 1926 a tournament was held in London for the first time.

The Hong Kong Sevens brought the game to a more international audience in 1976, and in 1999 the Sevens Series was born. Not only did it give the big, Test-playing nations a chance to hone their skills and fitness – but it also introduced countries not-so-acquainted with the 15-a-side version and since then, sevens has been played in all corners of the world, from Kenya and the Cook Islands to Georgia, Russia, Brazil and even the Philippines.

In Fiji, where rugby is believed to have first been played in 1884, by local and European soldiers of the Native Constabulary, the game has become its national pastime. In 1977 the country won the Hong Kong Sevens in its second-only incarnation, beating Marlborough 28-18. Titles have continued to come the island nation’s way ever since, and players like Waisale Serevi and Samisoni Viriviri have long wowed crowds with their dynamism and creative play.

On the other end of the scale, perhaps, is the USA, whose team is comprised largely of players who found rugby through American football, one of half a dozen national sports still more popular.

The UAE’s own ambitions, its federation’s secretary general Qais Al Dhalai admits, will be “on the pitch, rather than the scoreboard.” But the Emirates are another nation whose commitment to sevens rugby has flourished in recent years. Since 2011 it has had a presence at the Dubai tournament, which will continue to grow after sevens’ Olympics designation.

“Rugby is new to Emiratis so the sevens style of coaching is conducive to the growth and development of the Emirati player,” he adds. “We are now in a position to field a competitive sevens side as well as enter a regular 15s side into our tier-three domestic division.”

This year is the Dubai Sevens’ 46th year. But its biggest changes have come in the past two decades, as Dubai has blossomed into a full-fledged global destination. When Donal Kilelea joined the Dubai Sevens organisation team in 2003, it was a very different affair. The tournament welcomed just 20-25,000 people across its three days, at the small Exiles Rugby Stadium in the city’s historic Creek area. Today everything is bigger and better.

“It has become an ambassadorial event for Dubai,” he says. “28 per cent of people who visit now come from outside the country.”

In 2015, 100,000 people will visit the tournament, which from 2008 has been at The Sevens stadium – purpose built for the event. Kilelea and his team have strived to make the event more family-friendly throughout the years: this edition boasts live music, crèches, competitions and 15 different food and drinks vendors.

There are also a wide array of kids’ rugby tournaments, an under-7s club – Sabaa – and a teen zone. Perhaps unusually, netball has a big focus and 32 teams have also been invited to compete, which Kilelea hopes will, alongside the women’s rugby, attract more female fans. “The situation now, is that it’s more than just rugby,” he says. “It’s a joyous event. People just love the atmosphere and there’s something for everyone.”

The main event is, however, the rugby. This year over 430 teams requested to fill the 286 invitation spots available, breaking all previous records. The womens’ game will play a vital role, with 12 teams competing, and, according to Kililea, are “definitely as exciting as the men.”

Sevens was once considered a training tool for those trying to make it in the 15-a-side game. No longer. The lack of 15-a-side rugby’s heavyweight forwards means players must be nimble as well as strong. The way the game is played, too, has changed wildly –though, as UR7s (Ultimate Rugby Sevens) CEO and coach Tom Burwell says, the aim is ultimately the same.

“It's still about the creation and exploitation of space on a rugby field,” he says. “The major differences which have a huge impact on this are the structured defences, fitness levels and emphasis spent on areas as set piece and restart, which comes from coaches having full-time squads rather than, as it was previously, players meeting the day before the game.”

The Olympic decision, adds Burwell, has “changed and revolutionalised” the sport, but in different ways for different countries. “The fact that South Korea, Russia, China and USA now have full-time rugby sevens programs is something that no one would have thought possible ten years ago,” he says.

“The fact that Kenya, Japan and Portugal would be competing at the same table as the big boys of England, New Zealand and Australia is equally staggering but the shorter form of the game has made this possible.”

The IOC verdict has also helped sevens attract bigger stars. New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, and Australian Quaid Cooper, are two big names that have been tempted to the format by the chance of a medal. But sevens will not be a walk in the park for them, warns Burwell, “Players will need time to adjust, to get to the relevant fitness levels and understand the structures so that their obvious quality can then shine through.

“Without this time and exposure to the sport they’re not guaranteed to be a success,” he adds. “It’s for this reason that the likes of Sonny Bill Williams have signed to be play with New Zealand for the whole of the 2015/16 season and not just the Olympics, as it has been discussed with other players around the world.”

However these high-profile transplants perform, it’s clear that sevens rugby is on an upward trajectory. With events like the Dubai Sevens grabbing ever-bigger crowds, the sport may not be considered 15-a-side’s poorer cousin for very much longer.

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