Preview: Wellington Sevens
WORLD SERIES ROUND THREE: The Wellington leg of the Sevens World Series kicks off on Saturday with poor crowds again dominating the build-up to the two-day event.
The Sevens tournament was once the hottest ticket in the New Zealand capital and tickets for both days at the 35,000-capacity Westpac Stadium sold out within minutes.
But the party atmosphere that used to attract tens of thousands of fans in fancy dress has dissipated and organisers expect only 15,000 a day this year.
Martin Snedden, the sports administrator in charge when New Zealand hosted the 2011 15-a-side World Cup, said it was time for a change of venue after 18 years in Wellington.
"History will judge the Wellington Sevens down the track as being an amazing success story, but what's really apparent now is that it's probably run its course," Snedden told Fairfax New Zealand this week.
"That's not a negative comment. That's really a reflection of the fact that an event has a life cycle and this one seems to have reached the end."
The tournament gained a reputation for drunken revelry during its heyday, with police and the local council demanding an end to the booze-fuelled antics.
But it has struggled to reinvent itself as a family-friendly event, despite lowering ticket prices and offering more off-field entertainment.
There has also been competition in recent years from the Auckland Nines Rugby League competition and critics say there is a perception the Wellington Sevens feels tired.
What is undeniable is that fans are staying away in droves. The once packed-out stadium attracted only 18,000 a day in 2015, falling to 12,000 a day last year.
Organisers may struggle to reach their 15,000-a-day goal this year as gale-force winds and heavy rains have lashed Wellington for most of the week, killing any summertime buzz in the city.
While the Sevens is contracted to remain in the capital until 2019, Snedden said World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby had some tough decisions to consider.
"Is it best to keep trying to re-energise it? Or is it 'maybe we're flogging a dead horse?' That's a judgment call they've got to make."
On the field, reigning Olympics and World Sevens Series champions Fiji (32) will seek to close the gap on South Africa (41) and England (39), who have a win apiece in the two opening rounds.
But local interest will be focused on the Pool C grudge match between New Zealand and Gordon Tietjens' Samoa.
Tietjens-coached New Zealand for 22 years before announcing his departure in the wake of last year's failure at the Rio Olympics, and then accepted a role with the Pacific islanders.
However, he was still officially contracted to New Zealand Rugby Union, which made him sit out the opening rounds, making Wellington his first tournament in charge of Samoa.
Tietjens, who has described his treatment as "hurtful", said his former charges would be fired up.
"[They] won it the last three years in a row in Wellington and they'll be motivated to do it again," he said.
"They would have been disappointed in their first two tournaments and they'll look to redeem themselves."
The Wellington event is also likely to mark the debut of English cricket legend Ian Botham's grandson James, who has been named in the Wales squad.
James, or Jimbo to his granddad, was born in Cardiff and has represented Wales at under-18 level, playing as a flank.
Meanwhile, South African captain Philip Snyman took the BlitzBoks all the way to the final of the Wellington leg when he debuted as Springbok Sevens captain last year and is keen to help get the side over the line first in 2017.
Snyman shared the captaincy with Kyle Brown in the previous Sevens World Series, captaining the side in four of the 10 tournaments, but has since taken over the captain's armband permanently, with Brown deciding the step down from the role.
"It is hard to believe it is that time of the year already and that the Wellington tournament is about to kick off," Snyman said.
"We don't have Kyle and Cecil Afrika here this time, due to injuries, and we have lost a lot of experience because of that. But I am pretty excited about the new guys who came in and we are keen to give it another go to try and win the tournament.
"We trained well this week and will be ready, come Saturday and the first match against Japan."
Snyman said that the BlitzBoks adapted quickly to the 11-hour time difference between South Africa and New Zealand.
"It is hard to change around 11 hours as it is night and day, but we had some good sessions," said Snyman.
"Our attack looked sharp on Tuesday and the defence session we had today also had a good edge to it, so I am pretty pleased with the squad's mindsets at the moment."
The BlitzBoks face Japan, Australia and Fiji on Saturday in a tough Pool B, but Snyman is adamant that the team will embrace those challenges.
"Yes, that is a tough pool and we face three very good sides on Saturday, but we are ready to take them on," said Snyman.
"We have to get past Japan first, so we are putting a lot of focus on that. We need to start well and build momentum towards day two. The foundation of our quest to win here will be laid on the first day and the first match, so we must start well."
(Kick-off is local time - GMT plus 13 hours)
Day One - Saturday, January 28
Wales v Russia, 11.00
Scotland v Canada, 11.23
Fiji v Australia, 11.46
South Africa v Japan, 12.20
Kenya v Argentina, 12.32
England v Papua New Guinea, 12.55
USA v France, 13.19
New Zealand v Samoa, 13.41
Wales v Canada, 14.24
Scotland v Russia, 14.47
Fiji v Japan, 15.33
South Africa v Australia, 15.33
Kenya v Papua New Guinea, 15.56
England v Argentina, 16.19
USA v Samoa, 16.42
New Zealand v France, 17.16
Scotland v Wales, 17.26
Russia v Canada, 18.00
Scotland v Wales, 18.26
South Africa v Fiji, 19.18
Argentina v Papua New Guinea, 19.44
England v Kenya, 20.10
France v Canada, 20.36
New Zealand v USA, 21.13
Sources: Agence France-Presse & rugby365