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The Herald on Sunday editorial

Herald on Sunday editorial: Sevens medals fools' gold


Right now, sevens rugby is riding high. The New Zealand men's and women's teams have just returned from Moscow where they won their respective World Cups. This reinforced a belief that this country can strike double-gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, when the game makes its Olympic debut. It has also acted as the cue for much discussion on the best way to ensure this transpires.

In the process, a sense of perspective is being lost. There is good reason to think that too much may be sacrificed to ensure success at what may well prove to be an Olympic flash in the pan.

Sports come and go from the Games. Who now remembers that polo and tug-of-war were once part of the Olympic line-up? Sevens rugby seems a prime candidate to go the same way. Since it was first played in 1883 in Melrose, Scotland, it has made little impact in terms of global recognition. Only the annual tournament in Hong Kong has caused more than the tiniest of ripples. The crowd at the World Cup event in Moscow underlined the extent of the apathy.

This was the International Rugby Board's bid to take sevens outside its traditional comfort zone and test and, hopefully, broaden its appeal. It talked of igniting a new frontier. Before the tournament, Russia's rugby union claimed more than 100,000 tickets had been sold. The paltry attendance at the Luzhniki Stadium told an entirely different story.

In 1980, the stadium had been filled to its 89,000 capacity for the Moscow Olympics. Five years ago, it was packed out for soccer's Champions League final. At the sevens, there were only row after row of empty seats.

Worldwide transmission means this debacle cannot have gone unnoticed by the International Olympic Committee. If filling a purpose-built 20,000-seater stadium in Rio will be much easier, the game will still have to prove itself far more attractive to spectators if it is to survive as a Games sport. The prospect of that is hardly enhanced by the fact that, while the likes of the United States and Russia are trying to get to grips with sevens, the medals will almost certainly be won by rugby's traditional powerhouses.

In that context, it would be unwise for New Zealand to put too many irons in the sevens fire.

Yet already there is talk of the men's squad including a number of current All Blacks and Super rugby players. Pacy backs and rangy loose forwards are on the wanted list. It has even been suggested that some rugby league players may switch to sevens. The Warriors' Shaun Johnson or Rooster Sonny Bill Williams are two frequently mentioned.

They may well be a considerable asset in sevens. But any money spent on them by Sport New Zealand or rugby officials should be carefully considered against what other sports deserve. Under no circumstances should the possibility of a sevens gold be allowed to undermine the All Blacks.

Nor should the prospect of medals in this fringe sport mean more worthy athletes or sports are deprived of much-needed funding. That, unfortunately, seems likely to be the case because Sport New Zealand places a high priority on medal potential when it allocates money.

Sevens medals would have a sickly hue if the focus on Rio meant the All Blacks' resources were diluted so badly that they strung together losses. Or if other athletes failed to make the podium because their training was compromised by inadequate funding. It makes no sense to risk just that for the most ephemeral of triumphs in Rio.

- Herald on Sunday

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