Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: I'm no longer a rugby sevens naysayer

Akira Ioane of New Zealand in action during  London Sevens at Twickenham Stadium. photo / Getty
Akira Ioane of New Zealand in action during London Sevens at Twickenham Stadium. photo / Getty

It has turned into a losing battle.

Despite being a longstanding rugby sevens naysayer, the Olympic magic is working. The closer the five-ringed circus in Rio gets, the more the sevens looms as one of the certain highlights to my mind. So I'm in, a late blooming fan of sevens, which I had dismissed as an unsophisticated kids game.

The topsy-turvy nature of results on the world sevens circuit, the decline of our men's and women's teams, debates around Ardie Savea and other selection issues, the strong possibility of tiny Fiji claiming gold, a transtasman stoush particularly in the women's...the combination of all these things and more is proving irresistible.

The remarkable news that Spain qualified for the Olympics by beating Samoa in a repechage adds to the allure. Normal rugby is still dominated by an old boys network which only pretends to share the power. Sevens feels fresh and inclusive, as if it is breaking down those barriers. And the more worldly the sevens circuit has become, the more attractive the actual game seems.

What is starting to dawn on people is that rugby is at a significant crossroads. While the effects of the Olympic tournament remain to be seen, they could be extremely significant.
Sevens has long been a vibrant part of New Zealand rugby - I recall playing tournaments as a kid in the 1970s. Yet it has never been treated as a genuine sport where tactics and selections are publicly debated, or where domestic teams get much support beyond family and friends. Even most rugby aficionados would struggle to name the likely New Zealand Olympic squads. Change is in the air.

And questions abound. Will rugby continue to operate in parallel worlds, will some of the very best players become specialist sevens exponents, what will happen in the women's game, might a dominant hybrid sport develop? One thing is absolutely certain: there are many countries where 15-a-side rugby has absolutely no chance of taking hold, but where sevens would stand a chance.

There is another matter simmering away below the surface. Rugby (and league) faces a looming crisis as the truth about concussion emerges. The time may well come when it is no longer seen as acceptable to have schools involved in sports where severe brain damage will be a consequence for some participants, even if those dreadful effects are many decades away.

Sevens, with its emphasis on athleticism and fitness rather than brute strength, might be an acceptable if not totally risk-free answer. If sevens rugby really takes off in ways we can hardly imagine right now, it will also allow many outstanding footballers who lack the sheer size to make it into professional ranks another route to the fully-paid top. Just a thought.

And here's another one. A poor performance from New Zealand in Rio will produce a more dramatic response and thus a lift for sevens than a good one. Let the Games begin.

- NZ Herald

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Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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