Rugby: Sevens' rise not death-knell for 15-man game - IRB

New Zealand players do the haka after winning the final of the International Rugby Sevens at...
New Zealand players do the haka after winning the final of the International Rugby Sevens at Westpac Stadium, Wellington in February. Photo: NZPA / Aaron Smale
The explosion in popularity of rugby sevens does not sound the death knell for the 15-a-side format, leading figures in the sport say.

A major independent report into rugby's emerging markets shows a global participation increase of 19 percent since the 2007 World Cup, with the inclusion of sevens as an Olympic sport from 2016 one of the key factors behind the unprecedented rise.

Sevens is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world but the heads of the International Rugby Board said they don't believe it is slowly eroding the influence and appeal of the traditional 15-man game.

"They are totally different games and with 15s, we already have a sport that is modern-era friendly," IRB chief executive Mike Miller said. "It's good for television, a match is only a few hours.

"We see them as complementary, not competing with each other. The more different types there are, the better. Our view is that rugby will grow whether it's sevens, 15s, beach, tag or touch. As long as we get a ball in people's hands."

Key findings of the in-depth study, made by the Centre for the International Business of Sport at Coventry University Business School, found that more than 5 million people now play rugby in more than 117 countries.

Emerging nations such as China, Japan, Sri Lanka and the United States are helping drive the increase in participation, which has grown by 33 percent in Africa, 22 percent in South America and 18 percent in both Asia and North America.

"These are extremely exciting times for rugby," said IRB president Bernard Lapasset. "This report underlines that growth is not just continuing, but is accelerating and is as prominent in emerging rugby markets as traditional rugby countries."

While IRB investment and event-hosting strategies with linked legacy programmes can be attributed to the growth, the impact of sevens - which will make its Olympic debut in the Rio de Janeiro Games in five years' time - cannot be ignored.

The study showed the eight-tournament IRB sevens world series is attracting record viewing figures in 141 countries across six continents, with total TV airtime increasing by 7 percent compared to 2008-09.

The admission of sevens into the Olympic programme also means the sport can access government funding.

Miller, however, played down comparisons between sevens and Twenty20 cricket, which is also enjoying a boom, and is widely considered to be encroaching on the test format.

"The difference between sevens and 15s in that way, for TV, sponsors and fans, is nothing like the massive change that we have seen in cricket," he said.

Both Miller and Lapasset also said they don't believe it will be important or likely that some of 15s rugby's biggest names, such as New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter and England winger Chris Ashton, play in the Olympics.

"Changing from 15s to sevens without any preparation could be difficult for some players," Lapasset said. "(New Zealand great) Jonah Lomu used to be able to play 15s and sevens no problem. Now it is different.

"There are technical specifics on the field and we need players playing on the sevens circuit regularly. We want stars in both codes. We're using this possibility to open the way for new countries and stars."

The structure behind qualification for the 2016 Olympics, when 12 teams will compete in both the men's and women's sevens, should be finalised by October.

Miller said it was likely teams will get two chances to make the games, first through one of the five regional qualification competitions and then via a world playoffs. IRB chiefs may also use rankings or tournaments in the sevens world series as part of the qualifying process.

Miller also dismissed the notion of 15-a-side rugby ever being an Olympic sport, mainly because of logistical reasons.

"It just wouldn't work," he said. "You have sevens that works really well. Why do you need something else?"

 

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