Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby sevens: Empty seats at Sevens no worry for IRB boss

Behind the corporate smiles, mutual backslapping and tennis elbow from handshaking there must have been concern in the Rugby World Cup sevens VIP box about the largely empty Luzhniki stadium.

The New Zealand men and women turned on a scintillating display, despite the pitch turning to mush under the sort of rain that had you looking for an ark. Sadly, too few witnessed it live. Chants echoed off red, orange and yellow seats, images of which were beamed around the world into "321 million homes", said the IRB.

A claim from Russian rugby union boss Vyacheslav Kopiev less than a fortnight ago that more than 100,000 tickets had been sold appeared preposterous given the paltry numbers at one of the IRB's premier events. The barren seats at an 89,000-seat stadium, which has previously hosted the 1980 Olympics and the 2008 Champions League final, raised questions over how the IRB addresses this in future.

Do they keep reaching out to rugby's developing nations, or do they opt for proven venues like Hong Kong, Dubai and Wellington?

IRB chief executive Brett Gosper is adamant expansion must be pursued.

"We came to Moscow to take rugby to a part of the world where it is in its infancy. We feel we've had a good reaction but we're probably a touch disappointed with a crowd pushing around 20,000 a day. We could have burst the seams of a 20,000-seat stadium, but doing it here sends out an important signal to Russians that this is a top-level sport. This place has an iconic value."

Gosper's "pushing around 20,000 a day" claim is ambitious, but the IRB boss was comfortable with footage of empty seats being transmitted worldwide.

"That's the risk you take coming to a new city and playing in a stadium as big as this. We're standing here with a lot of Olympic officials who are positive about the experience. They know we're trying to take the sport into new countries and that it's not an easy thing to fill a stadium in five minutes.

"It's time rugby went out of its comfort zone and that's why we're going to less traditional venues like Japan for the 2019 World Cup."

Nothing had changed Gosper's view post-tournament.

"We're taking bold decisions to take the game as far as we can, as quick as we can. That can mean some empty seats."

The next tournament will be held in 2018. Gosper said official bid city representatives from Wales, the United States and Singapore had visited Moscow.

Rugby sevens' next major international tournament will be the Olympic Games. Gosper expected no problem filling a purpose-built 20,000-seat stadium in Rio, which it will share with eight other sports.

•Andrew Alderson travelled to Moscow with the assistance of New Zealand Rugby

- NZ Herald

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