Olympics thrusts 7s into spotlight
Mon, 26 Mar 2012 00:00
Sevens is coming out of the shadow of the more high-profile 15-a-side game as the stakes are raised ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, say some of the sport's top coaches and players.
The high-octane seven-a-side version has its own world series and is already a fixture at multi-sports events such as the Commonwealth Games, but inclusion on the biggest stage is likely to take it to a new level.
Sevens, generally featuring seven-minute halves, has long been seen as a distant second best to the 15s game. It has also become well-known for attracting a raucous party crowd at major events in Dubai and Hong Kong.
When the International Olympic Committee announced it would be included at the 2016 Rio Games, rugby's governing body said it turned Sevens into a "calling card" to grow all forms of the game on a global level.
Australian coach Michael O'Connor, speaking at this weekend's Hong Kong Sevens, welcomed the extra pressure on players and coaches amid growing interest in the game.
"There's a real recognition in Australia for sevens. It's a real phenomenon," O'Connor said.
The young players the coach has in his side "are in that demographic" who could set their sights on Rio. This changes how they approach the game, and how he works as a coach.
Former All Black Tana Umaga said the Olympics would inevitably be a big draw for players who in the past would have focused on donning the famous All Blacks jersey.
"There will be a lot of guys focusing on making the World Cup squad, and after that a lot of All Blacks who might focus on making the Sevens because of the prestige of the Olympics," he said.
"You'll probably have to decide early what you want to focus on: 15s or Sevens. It's a bit like you're a sprinter and you're a shot-putter and you have got to decide on one of them, you can't do both."
New Zealand Sevens skipper DJ Forbes, whose side were defeated in the final in Hong Kong by Fiji, said the Olympics were at the back of his mind, and that the inclusion of Sevens would lift the profile of the sport.
"I would definitely like to push on," said Forbes, who turns 30 at the end of this year. "With the prestige of the 15s All Blacks, Sevens is always hanging out for recognition.
"An Olympic medal would lift the pedigree of the Sevens team - hopefully sooner rather than later."
England's lightning quick winger Dan Norton also has an eye on Rio.
"Sevens is all about development of young players and it's developing into a massive sport", said Norton. For me four years is a long way away. I'll be 28 then but I'd love to be involved and win, or have the chance to win a medal."
While the game basks in its new profile, what about the flip side, the argument that focusing on Sevens skills could harm the development of players for the 15-a-side game?
Legendary All Black winger John Kirwan dismisses the concerns.
"Twenty years ago Sevens was a hybrid game and no-one understood it. Now it is part of the game. If we understand the risks we should be able to get it together. It will bring new challenges, but they're all positive.
"The challenge for the International Rugby Union is that, when it hits globally after the 2016 Olympics, is strategically to say it's a positive risk, because it's not a negative risk," he said.
And England Sevens coach Ben Ryan, while admitting Sevens and 15s rugby have different demands, says they both require similar skill-sets.
"It's a bit like using the analogy of a heavyweight boxer and a middleweight boxer," he said.
"There's the physical element in preparation... (the Sevens players) are quicker and their speed endurance is better," Ryan added.
"At the end of the day, it's all rugby. You've got to run, tackle, be quick and sharp."
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