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Sevens to break new ground after Olympic Games debut

By Oliver Pickup

Sonny Bill Williams bumps out of the tackle from Tiago Fernandes of Portugal during the 2016 Sydney Sevens. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams bumps out of the tackle from Tiago Fernandes of Portugal during the 2016 Sydney Sevens. Photo / Getty Images

Everything points towards rugby sevens taking the world by storm this August, when it makes its Olympic bow in Rio de Janeiro. And with billions of viewers tuning in to the action, potentially, then it will "explode", so says Waisele Serevi, the so-called king of the sport. He is far from alone in voicing that prediction, as enthusiasm for sevens continues to crank up, and more people are turned on to its potential.

Ever since the International Olympic Committee agreed to include the discipline - which, importantly, will be the first team sport to finish in Brazil, ensuring a captive audience - in the Games back in 2009, it has been building, slowly and surely, to this point. The foundations are strong, but how tall in stature can sevens reach, post Rio?

Throughout the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015-16 - which concluded in London on May 22 for the men, and the women's season ended last weekend in Clermont - excitement levels have been rising, on and off the pitch.

So has the quality of play, with the metallic carrot of an Olympic medal proving to be a powerful incentive.

The standard has never been so high and as a consequence the competition, for both sexes, is tougher, and tighter than ever - as displayed by Scotland's last-gasp 27-26 victory over South Africa at Twickenham earlier this month to earn them a maiden Sevens Series crown, in their first final.

That triumph represented a sixth different winner on the 10-stop circuit this season, though if favourites Fiji manage to top the men's podium then it would provide a fairytale first Olympic medal for the Pacific Islanders, and be one of the most heart-warming stories of the Games.

On the women's side, after three years of total domination, New Zealand have been caught up, and overtaken, this term, thrillingly. Australia, Canada and England have all toppled them, with the Australians sealing the overall crown in France on Sunday. That the medal places are so hard to call makes sevens all the more watchable.

"Sevens could, and should, be the hit of the Games," Giles Morgan, Global Head of Sponsorship and Events at HSBC, told Telegraph Sport in Paris, the penultimate stop of the men's circuit, earlier in May.

"Olympic inclusion is not a slam dunk, but it can have an extraordinary effect on a sport's ability to be seen by a much wider audience.

"And you know there is going to be interest, because what the players can do is simply amazing. Whatever happens, post-Rio, one thing won't change: these guys and girls are brilliant players, and they're getting better."

HSBC became the first title sponsor of the Sevens Series in 2010, later adding the women's version, and Morgan, who is lobbying World Rugby to swell both the men's and women's series, believes that its simplicity to understand makes it appealing to a worldwide audience.

In turn, that ability to be translated means that countries in emerging markets can embrace sevens, and rugby's supposed top-tier rugby countries can be usurped - as evidenced by Sevens Series silverware for Kenya and Samoa this term, and USA in London last year.

"The beauty of sevens is that it is digestible, easy for kids to pick up, and a much more democratic version of rugby," he continued. "It also happens to be incredibly entertaining - and, importantly, it doesn't cannibalise XVs at all.

"I think - and hope - what you'll see in Rio is a bit of a reality check for the world of rugby, when people fully wake up to sevens. We've got a real jewel, here."

Sir Clive Woodward, the 2003 Rugby World Cup mastermind, agrees with Morgan that sevens is a "sleeping giant of rugby" - and the former England head coach, whose progressive approach to rugby is always underpinned by exhaustive analysis, would not be so bold without scoping out all the angles.

"Through sevens, rugby is becoming a multinational sport," Woodward wrote in HSBC's Future of Rugby report which was published in April. "But it's still not a world game like football, so it's now about how you take it to that next level.

"World Rugby realises this, and hence the big emphasis on rugby sevens. I think sevens is this sleeping giant of rugby. I really think it can help develop the game on a world level. Rio will be the springboard to take it global."

Reports emanating from Brazil suggest that sevens has proven to be the hottest ticket in town, with both competitions already sold out. The women's tournament takes place from August 6 to 8 at the Deodoro Stadium - a temporary venue with a capacity of 15,000 - while the men's competition begins, at the same place, the following day and concludes on August 11.

And Jason Robinson, a key member of Woodward's World Cup-winning team, is positive sevens will be a great success at Rio. "No one really knows what will happen, but I'm convinced that the players will deliver and the world will take rugby to heart," the HSBC ambassador told Telegraph Sport. "That's because it such a simple game - the viewers won't need to know about resetting scrums, and things like that. It's just guys expressing themselves, and that is what we want to see."

In terms of pure entertainment XVs is trailing in the dust of sevens, according to Robinson. For the 41-year-old it is almost unfair to compare the two. He cites Saracens' 21-9 win over Racing Metro earlier this month, which gleaned the London club their first-ever European Cup title. Not a try was scored, as Owen Farrell kicked all seven of his penalties, and his opposite man, Johan Goosen, stroked three of his own.

"That XVs final was just a heavyweight clash," Robinson continued, "and there was no real excitement. I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to watch live sport to get off my seat. In XVs you might rise once each half if someone makes a 10-metre break. In sevens you are guaranteed that excitement."

The athleticism required for top-level sevens, where repeat sprints are the norm, also makes it stand out as a spectacle. Stars from the 15-a-side format - including Sonny Bill Williams, Quade Cooper and Bryan Habana - among other cross coders (former Australian NRL star Jarryd Hayne joined Fiji for the London Sevens, and Nate Ebner, a Super Bowl winner, played in Hong Kong for America) have tried their hand at sevens this season, and all have found the physical fitness tough to cope with.

Robinson added: "Everyone who has switched to the game in a bid to play at the Olympics has said the same thing: they have so much respect for the guys that are playing at the moment because sevens has taken the fitness levels of rugby higher than ever before. It is way beyond what everyone is used to."

Sevens is also ahead in other areas when compared to rugby union, its elder, and more traditional sibling - not least in embracing technology. Indeed, with seven-minute halves and moments of breathtaking rugby genius, it does not require extended periods of concentration and lends itself brilliantly to social media.

Throughout last autumn's Rugby World Cup some 4.2 million tweets were sent using the hashtag #RWC2015, highlighting how the sport already has a tech-savvy audience. The Future of Rugby report notes that sevens "has most of the ingredients to be the template for a 21st century sport".

That document predicts that in 10 years "sevens' TV viewing experience will have been transformed by innovations demonstrating the speed, skill and sheer athleticism of the players," and continues: "Be prepared to see on-player cameras and a combination of golf's Protracer and tennis's Hawk-Eye showing off player pace and agility that will help connect the sport to new audiences."

Further: "By 2026, sports media will be live or be on digital social platforms, or both. Websites will be largely redundant, except as reference sources. Sports content will mostly be hosted on and consumed through social platforms, whose owners will represent important opportunities for partnerships, revenues and brand development. For younger audiences, live content will also increasingly be watched via devices rather than on television."

If sevens continues on its current trajectory, by 2026 rugby will boast 15 million players worldwide - and 40 per cent of those will be female, the HSBC Future of Rugby report suggests. "Women's rugby is the fastest growing sport in the world at the moment, and it has been adding close to 500,000 players a year for the past few years," it states. "It is growing quickly in both developed and emerging markets."

The sevens at the Rio Olympics will undoubtedly provide edge-of-the-seat entertainment, given the quality on show in the latest men's and women's Sevens Series. How the world reacts, and how rugby as a whole can benefit in the short and long term, will be similarly fascinating to watch.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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