The future of rugby – sevens?

…..or maybe not.

In reality we don’t know what the future of sevens or even XVs holds but there is no harm in speculating. What we do know though is that sevens inclusion in this 2016 Rio Olympic games and the subsequent 2020 games will bring with it a seismic shift for the sport which has the potential to also impact the longer form of the game.

Sevens has a number of advantages over XVs which makes it the perfect game for a quick turnaround tournament such as the Olympics; it is less technical, it is easier to pick up and learn and it relies more on individual skill than team work, meaning just one or two strong players can make a team competitive.

The World Sevens Series has a number of competitive nations that do not have the same level of strength in the XVs game, including Portugal, Kenya, Canada and the United States. Indeed the USA men’s sevens team won their first World Series event last year in London which is a marker of how far they have come as a nation but also how relatively easy it is to make big strides in the world of sevens with a good pool of players and a strong sevens specialist coach.

The USA team coach, England’s Mike Friday was quoted after the win as saying, “If we qualify for the 2016 Olympics and get a medal, it will be in spite, not be because, of the existing U.S. rugby infrastructure,” Imagine how good they could be if rugby was played at a younger age in large swathes of the United States.

Olympic Money

As soon as rugby was announced as an Olympic sport the various national Olympic associations began to funnel investment in to the sevens game to make their teams competitive. Non-traditional rugby playing nations such as Brazil, Russia and China began to put in place structures and “pathways” to quickly bring their sevens teams up to a competitive standard.

Kenya, who already play at a good standard, have seen the game grown to the point where it is the second most popular team sport behind football. They have even been named Kenyan sports team of the year on several occasions.  Sevens rugby has spread to a number of new rugby playing nations who have little or no representation in the long form of the game.

With Olympic representation comes money and it is no surprise some of the big names in the XVs game have been mooted as likely to take a sabbatical to train towards the Rio Olympics. Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams have both been suggested as likely sevens players for the All Blacks in Rio and the Australian Rugby Union has stated that no Wallabies who want to play in Rio will be financially disadvantaged. This could pave the way for those that haven’t signed a contract with a French Top 14 club to turn up in Brazil for a few weeks next year!

So what does the future hold for the sevens game and its big brother, the XVs game? Using our crystal ball we see 3 possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Sevens increases in popularity but remains a marginal sport with little impact on XVs

Rugby sevens will undoubtedly increase in popularity over the coming years but once the bunting is taken down in Rio and Tokyo in 2020 what will sevens be left with? At present there is only one high profile international tournament which is the World Series so how does sevens remain in the public consciousness when there aren’t any tournaments to watch for the majority of the season?

This challenge and the lack of ongoing exposure may mean that it fails to hold on to its gains and remains as it is today as a marginal sport which captures the imagination on a couple of weekends during the year. Players will continue to develop as XV a side players who step across to play sevens when required. There is some further specialism in the skills required for sevens but the lack of money in the sevens game will mean that most players have to still have a contract with a XV a side domestic team to make ends meet.

Scenario 2: Sevens increases in popularity to the point where it becomes an equal with the XVs game

This isn’t going to happen overnight but there is a plausible argument to make that says off the back of two successful Olympic Games sevens takes hold in a number of developing rugby nations and becomes the premier form of rugby. These countries include the USA, Russia, China, Brazil, Kenya and Nigeria.

In the established rugby nations sevens increases in popularity and has greater TV exposure which leads to some players now following a fully professional career focusing on sevens from a young age. There are a number of domestic and international tournaments and the profile of the world’s best players increases so they become as recognisable as the leading exponents of the long form.

Scenario 3: Sevens increase in popularity mirrors the decline in the XV game to become the main global form of the game

The decline of the global XVs game is caused primarily by the concern for player safety following a number of studies showing the side effects of playing collision sports. A number of high profile legal cases against rugby’s governing bodies, clubs and schools from those affected by long term rugby related injuries results in the game’s popularity waning.

The fact sevens is more a game of evasion rather than collision works in its favour and it becomes the format of rugby played in schools and rugby clubs. XVs rugby, with its constant head collisions and serious injuries is treated with the same level of caution as boxing is today.

As the participation in XVs decreases a large number of former players and spectators switch to the sevens game. This increase in interest is followed by an influx of sponsors and private investment and the traditional XV clubs and regions of today are now better known for their seven a side teams which take part in regular sevens tournaments.

In the sevens world cup there are 50 teams with a chance of being competitive and winning the trophy but the 2037 tournament was won by Russia, having beaten the USA in a tense final played in Chicago. The game was refereed by Nigel Owens in his last game before retirement.

The changing rugby world 

In reality a lot of these predictions won’t come true but the XVs game is facing a number of serious pressures which could put its long term future as a “global” game at risk. At the same time sevens is increasing in popularity and the Olympics will give it the shop window to further increase its exposure.

The simple nature of sevens and the ease with which the game can be followed gives it a huge advantage over the XVs game which is increasingly becoming a game that is decided by minor technicalities that leaves most viewers baffled.

One thing for certain is that the game of sevens is on the up and will continue to do so for some time yet.

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