Marketing men rub their hands as Sevens format quickly gains ground around the world. “Get on the train and see where it takes you,” is how Mark McCafferty of the Aviva Premiership described this past weekend’s inaugural World Club Sevens.
The shortened form of the 15-a-side game used to be a niche pursuit, something the fit lads did while the fat boys were in the curry house. Now barely a week passes without a new sevens event, prompted by two factors: the need for professional rugby to generate interest and income wherever possible; and the boost to the profile of sevens from its inclusion in the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.
The tournament organisers shelled out a substantial six-figure sum to bring nine teams from Russia, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, the US and New Zealand to play alongside Harlequins, Gloucester and Northampton at Twickenham.
In keeping with sevens generally, the players are mostly unknown, but some of them have their dreams. Patrice Agunda, a Kenyan guesting for Harlequins, would like a contract with a Premiership club. Carlin Isles, the 100m sprinter turned full-time US sevens player, puffs out his cheeks in admiration at Samu Manoa, once of the San Francisco Golden Gate club, becoming a star at Northampton. But top of Isles’s wish-list is an Olympic gold medal.
The Premiership clubs are desperate to “work their assets” – hence the JP Morgan sevens series staged this summer at Gloucester, Northampton, Saracens and Bath – and expand their fan base.
“A key interest for us is an opportunity for our clubs to cost-effectively market their names outside of England,” said McCafferty, the chief executive of Premiership Rugby Ltd, trumpeting TV coverage of the World Club Sevens on ESPN in the US, SuperSport in South Africa, OSN in the Middle East, ESPN Sur in South America, Sky in New Zealand, Fox Sports in Australia and BT Sport in the UK and Ireland. “Think of the brand of Gloucester Rugby; they’re going out this weekend to new markets around the world.”
Further in the background is the continuing ruckus surrounding the Heineken Cup and who controls cross-border competitions. By flying the Blue Bulls, ACT Brumbies, Auckland and Western Province into Twickenham, the Premiership are building significant bridges.
It was no idle comment when McCafferty told a reception for the teams at Harlequins on Thursday: “This feels like a special moment in history: the first time there has been a competitive format between clubs and provinces from the northern and southern hemispheres.”
Sevens allows countries such as Kenya, Fiji and Spain to make a mark without a full-blown 15-a-side culture at home. The Olympic link unlocks central funding, and it has been reported that the Chinese government are funding 13 provincial teams playing only sevens.
The International Rugby Board (IRB) lobbied the IOC for decades, and started their Sevens World Series for national teams in 1999. It visits nine cities from October to June, drawing huge crowds in Hong Kong, Wellington and London, and every four years it includes the Rugby World Cup Sevens, which dovetails in turn with the Olympic cycle.
The Commonwealth Games Sevens, to be played at Ibrox next year, started in 1998. The new GB Sevens was played in June by specialist invitational teams such as Samurai, Crawshay’s Welsh and the Scottish Thistles, and was broadcast by BT’s rivals Sky. The standard was classier than the JP Morgan series, not that the 13,000 spectators for the latter at Gloucester seemed fussed. And those kinds of numbers get bean-counters excited. Wales will have their new National Sevens on the new artificial pitch at Cardiff Arms Park next week, and there are old staples such as the Melrose Sevens in Scotland and the Middlesex Sevens, which had pride of place at Twickenham in the amateur days.
Inevitably there is a jostling for influence, notably in the US. The national union’s squad are billeted full-time in San Diego, but they backed out of supplying 12 players to the American teams at Twickenham. The legendary sevens exponent Waisale Serevi’s coaching academy in Seattle is not involved, and after a Los Angeles team also fell by the wayside, it left the grandiosely titled San Francisco and New York to be based on the Golden Gate and Old Blue clubs.
New York, sporting freshly embroidered Statue of Liberty blazer badges, borrowed two Fijians to make up their numbers. “Sevens is definitely the way forward to the uninitiated fan,” said Stephen Lewis, the New York team manager, who runs the Northeast Rugby Olympic Development Academy. “In a mature sports market you’ve got to find a niche. I think it’s a logical progression to have a world club sevens circuit, and a US circuit under that.”
England have 16 sevens players under contract, and only aficionados would pick out Dan Norton, Sam Edgerley or Rob Vickernam in the street. There again, who would have heard of Katherine Grainger without the Olympics? Gold medals can shine a light in unexpected places.
“Sevens could be a threat to 15s but you can’t suppress it,” said McCafferty, who speculated that Harlequins might one day be spending £400,000 on a dedicated sevens squad. “Cricket is going through the same process. It is easy to criticise it but you have to wrestle with it.”