Union on red alert as sevens begins to infiltrate rugby

Photo: Sam Mcculloch and Maria Faciolince

Outspoken Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimano-Sapulo has fired off a string of tweets predicting that rugby sevens will overtake its 15-a-side father, rugby union, in terms of global reach and financial power. “Sevens Olympics makes the RWC look like club rugby”, he boldly stated.

For the uninitiated, rugby sevens follows largely the same laws as rugby union, but with 7 players per team for two halves of 7 minutes. On the same sized pitch, the differences between the two sports are vast as the sevens players rely on sprinting and fitness to exploit space whereas in rugby union field position, physical domination and set pieces are more important.

Faster, easier to understand and more instantly gratifying with lots of tries, the international reach of the appropriately-titled ‘World Sevens Series’ is beyond that of the rugby union’s World Cup. The World Series is opening up new markets to rugby sevens, this year’s 9-leg globe-trotting competition set to be hosted by Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Las Vegas in addition to traditional rugby-minded cities. Sevens is set to feature in the Olympics for the first time in Rio 2016.

The privilege of hosting rugby union’s World Cup only falls to the most established rugby nations with the largest native followings: next year’s tournament will be hosted by England and the previous three went to New Zealand, France and Australia respectively.

Sevens is eminently more marketable as a sport: only one large stadium is needed over one weekend, reducing administration fees; underdogs from new rugby nations such as Kenya always have a chance of winning; and there is a party atmosphere with fancy dress themes and lots of drinking.

Much like Twenty20 cricket and Test cricket, the two formats enjoy a rocky relationship. However, over the last few weeks, the power dynamics between union and sevens have been in the spotlight for two reasons: firstly, there is a loophole whereby rugby union internationals can change allegiances to a new nation by competing in qualifying matches for the Olympic Sevens tournament;  and  secondly  because many of the biggest stars of international rugby union have expressed an interest in playing at the Olympics.

This means that New Zealand legends Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko are touted to switch allegiances through sevens to play union for their native Fiji in time for next year’s Rugby World Cup. More bizarrely union player Steffon Armitage, capped 5 times by England, could become eligible for the French national team.

The French rugby establishment is said to be keen on the switch: Armitage  was  named  European Player of the Year 2014, after all. They have a host of other players of international calibre playing in France who could also use Sevens as a gateway to making the French national union side.

The problem is, players such as Armitage are not guaranteed to be excellent sevens players, his considerable strength would not make up for his lack of pace and aerobic fitness required for sevens rugby.

France Sevens coach Frederic Pomarel is quite rightly unconvinced. Sevens is going to take its biggest step up yet by featuring in the Olympics. Although ironic given the apparently amatuer nature of the Olympics, such a stage could herald a new professional era for the sport through increased funding and participation.

Pomarel is keen that his 18 contracted sevens players are allowed the best possible chance to qualify for the Olympics: if his team becomes a grooming ground for potential 15-a-side players then they could well fail to qualify. Other nations, such as New Zealand and Australia, could well dip into their union sides to find talent for their sevens team.

The highest-profile  players, such as Israel Folau and Sonny Bill Williams, could easily adapt to sevens rugby due to their speed and agility.

Clearly the 2016 Olympics in Rio will be a turning point for sevens and for union. Most likely, the sports will diverge as sevens becomes popular enough to stand alone and develop into a worldwide sport.

Rugby union, meanwhile, will continue to attract the ‘purists’ who love the physicality, mental and technical intrigue of the more complex, original form of the game. The question for athletes will become “Which sport has greater appeal?”, or even “Which sport will pay better?”. An Olympic gold medal or a Rugby World Cup? Sonny Bill Williams is already a rugby league and rugby union World Cup winner and an undefeated heavyweight boxer, whilst Folau has proved adept at Australian rules football, rugby league and rugby union. Few could question their ability to add an Olympic gold to all of that.


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