Sevens explosion 'inevitable'
Sevens is set to become rugby union's global game now that it is in the Olympics, says All Blacks legend John Kirwan, who warned this should not be viewed by the establishment as a threat to the traditional 15-a-side game.
'I believe sevens will overtake 15s in the near future. It will win the numbers game with more countries taking it up and some devoting all their resources only to it. But we should view it as a positive problem,' said Kirwan, speaking at a round table discussion on the importance of the abbreviated version of rugby on the eve of the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
A panel of experts and ex-players, among them former Japan coach Kirwan and Johnny Zhang Zhiqiang, ex-captain of China, all expounded on the subject 'Sevens: A serious Player?' at the HSBC organised forum. After a 15-year break, the bank is returning as co-title sponsors of the Hong Kong Sevens.
Kirwan said the rising influence of sevens would throw up obstacles which the International Rugby Board should handle with foresight by encompassing it into the larger picture.
'An issue the IRB needs to address is how we strategically marry the two - sevens and 15s,' Kirwan said. 'But I wouldn't worry about countries only looking at sevens now. The importance is the growth of rugby, in whatever form. We all want to see rugby develop and it doesn't matter how it is developed as long as we know sevens is heading towards 15s.'
He added: 'There is room for both, like in cricket there is room for tests as well as the Twenty20 version.'
A glowing example of the importance of sevens worldwide is China where the 15-a-side programme has all but been ignored in recent years, as the country tries to build its sevens agenda with an eye on taking part in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The mainland government is now pumping in funds and resources to 13 provincial teams who are only concentrating on the sevens form of the game.
Zhang, who is now head coach of the China sevens team who will be in action this weekend, has said sevens supersedes 15s in importance on the mainland. The record-holder for the most number of tries at the Hong Kong Sevens also revealed that if not for sevens being in the Olympics, the mainland government would never have got behind the game as it had started to do now.
'In China, sport is linked to government policy. How sport develops depends on government support,' Zhang said. 'Already 13 provinces have started sevens programmes and after the London Olympics the Chinese government will put even more focus on sevens.
'Since 2005, there has been no new 15-a-side team coming on board in China. The youth who are entering the sport today are playing sevens and not 15s,' he added.
Asia has been at the heart of the game's explosion mainly through the Hong Kong Sevens, which began in 1976. The event has been the catalyst for change, breaking through long-held views by the game's establishment that the abbreviated version had no place in the bigger picture.
The IRB's tournament operations manager, Beth Coalter, said it was only in 1994, that the English RFU had first sent a representative team to the Hong Kong Sevens.
'I remember in the old days the stance the RFU had towards sevens, and especially the Hong Kong Sevens where they turned down several invitations to turn up here,' said Coalter, who at the time worked for the HKRFU.
Coalter, however, warned that sevens had just two opportunities to impress the International Olympic Committee - the 2016 and 2020 Games - and would be working to try to increase the number of teams at the Olympics. Only 12 teams will compete at the 2016 Rio Games.
'We are in the Olympics for only two Games. We have two opportunities to show how fantastic sevens are,' Coalter said. 'We will also be working with other team sports like basketball to increase numbers. Only soccer is allowed 16 teams.'