Could Sevens be to rugby what T20 is to cricket? The parallels are clear: a faster-paced, quick-scoring version of the longer format designed to appeal to the short attention spans of Gen’ Y-ers.
But while T20 has helped to reinvigorate the interest of cricket amongst established playing nations, rugby sevens (which has been around for yonks) has recently expanded into new territories. One simple explanation for this is that it will debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics (after its inclusion in the last four Commonwealth Games).
A glance at the current Sevens World Series Standings, updated after Fiji’s recent win in the Hong Kong tournament, shows that Kenya are fifth and Portugal are on an upward curve in 13th. The top ten isn’t that different to what you might expect from the full rugby union world rankings – the All Blacks are streets ahead at the top, and the traditional rugby powers are in the top 10 (except Australia in eleventh) – but, the USA and Canada are ploughing more resources into the game, and even El Salvador and Guatemala lobbying for inclusion in the World Series.
To some, the opening question will carry the malign implication that sevens could be detrimental to the 15-a-side game, in the same way as T20 is often accused of subjugating Test cricket. They will remember the promises of T20 bringing a new and vibrant audience to all forms of cricket and grumble that, in actuality, the new fans have taken over the joint, with administrators and advertisers have pandered to them at the expense of ‘traditional’ fans.
It’s hard to see an IPL-style league developing in, say, Australia or the USA; poaching the best 15(or 13)-a-side rugby talent for months of the year. Consider though that the cross-code (league and union – and boxing!) superstar Sonny Bill Williams has expressed an interest in competing at the Rio Olympics. If money were to pour into the game then players already wary of the physical tolls league and union have on their bodies could switch sides, at least for portions of the season.
In recent years cricket traditionalists have bemoaned the advent of T20 specialists – pejoratively titled ‘guns for hire’, as if the likes of Lasith Malinga are mercenaries out to destroy Test cricket. In rugby, the sevens players are almost exclusively just that: players of sevens rugby only. The skills between sevens and fifteens [sic] are clearly largely transferable, so long as you are a fleet-of-foot back. The rugby versions of cricketing plodders like Ed Cowan and Jonathan Trott would be the lumbering forwards. Would they too become a dying breed as their unique skillsets are deemed obsolete in a modern rugby culture?