Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Wellington to retain sevens

Gordon Tietjens will continue bringing his team to Wellington.
Gordon Tietjens will continue bringing his team to Wellington.

New Zealand Rugby's board is expected to sign off on a proposal this week to retain Wellington as the host city of the country's World Series Sevens event.

It may seem inconsistent to announce one week that the tournament bombed, losing close to $400,000 last year, and then to rubber stamp the continuation of its hosting rights seven days later.

But, in the end, there probably wasn't a lot of choice for NZR. News of Wellington's financial bath was delivered as part of the union's address to the nation, when they revealed the top line of their annual accounts and strategic vision through to 2020.

Just as winning two Olympic golds in Rio was a key priority in their last five-year plan, so too is winning two golds in Tokyo in 2020, a central plank of their updated document.

It would have been inconsistent to unveil an extended plan that has locked the union into trying to win four gold medals in sevens and then announce this week they are no longer interested in hosting a World Series event.

There was no choice but to make a commitment to continue hosting a major sevens event. Nothing would have looked more ridiculous than chief executive Steve Tew confirming his organisation's total support to the respective national sevens teams and then giving up on hosting a tournament.

Knowing that they were committed to hosting a sevens tournament, what were the realistic choices?

Auckland is the alternative with the most to offer. Eden Park has the seats and infrastructure and the city has the beds and inner-city transport links to cope.
Who knows? Taking the sevens to Auckland may also have helped with the other strategic goal of building greater interest within the wider city and region.

NZR have been trying for some time to build participation rates and spectator numbers in the city and sell the support to a diverse ethnic mix where there are pockets of the population who have no affinity with the game.

It's been a slow and, as revealed by Tew last week, largely unsuccessful business so far and the drama, colour and fun attached to a major sevens event may have been just the ticket - literally - to win new converts. But the unfortunate truth for NZR is that they have missed the boat. The NRL have taken ownership of the city's football-festival event space with the Nines.

Dunedin is the other credible alternative but would have been a non-starter for two reasons. First, the air connections would have been problematic - getting that many teams in and out would have been hard and expensive. Second, given the timing, the students wouldn't be in town. What sense would there be trying to host a giant party without the student population?

Wellington, despite its recent issues in attracting crowds, would have come out on top as the best venue. Neither the city nor the concept are broken.

Sevens is growing in popularity and the capital has easy access to the stadium and a vibrant culture. The challenge now is for NZR to see the tournament as a test case to reform the stadium experience.

That's the bit they got wrong in the past two years and the main reason one of the most popular and profitable events in the rugby calendar has been reduced to a sad two days of thousands of empty seats and endless lamenting about the good, old days.

- Herald on Sunday

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