Round table discussion on rugby sevens' future
With rugby sevens heading to the Olympics in 2016, World Series sponsors HSBC held a round-table discussion about how that will affect the sport. Hosted by Giles Morgan, the bank's global head of sponsorship and events, participants included Trevor Gregory, chairman of the HKRFU; Seb Coe, chairman of the British Olympic Association; sevens legend Waisale Serevi; Beth Coalter, World Series tournament director; Avan Lee, IRB commercial manager; journalists from The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, Sports Illustrated, China Daily, and the South China Morning Post's James Porteous. These are excerpts from a wide-ranging conversation:
Q: Where, from the IRB point of view, is sevens going?
Avan Lee: Hong Kong is the pinnacle of the series, the No 1 tournament in a number of ways. Sevens is on the crest of a wave, now an Olympic sport and it's up to all stakeholders to make sure the IOC keeps sevens in the Olympics. I think a big challenge for the IRB is that sevens doesn't cannibalise the 15s version of the game. Sevens is obviously very attractive, but we need to hold true to our values that 15s and sevens need to stand together.
Q: What are the concerns in the IRB about the Olympic challenge?
Lee: We've got two Olympics to make it count - 15s isn't truly global whereas at the moment sevens is certainly going into new countries, it's almost like a new frontier.
Q: Could there be friction between the codes?
Sebastian Coe: I know about a 10th as much as others here about sevens. But coming from a university where rugby was a religion, it does strike me if you go back to the Loughborough teams, we had a good coach [Jim Greenwood] who was a Scottish international, played for the Lions, his view was that the talent you really wanted to hone for 15s was sevens.
Trevor Gregory: In Asia, sevens is really in danger of outstripping 15s completely, a lot of the Asian countries feel they have a better chance. It's a more level playing field in that speed counts more than size. The main fear is that countries like China just won't play 15s.
Q: Does it matter if one grows at the expense of the other?
Gregory: If we let it matter we're in danger of killing an element of people who want to play our sport. Cricket is a great example, forms like Twenty20 have become huge but there's still a big place for test cricket.
Coe: Interestingly, there's a completely changed landscape in terms of who'll be hosting events over the next 20 years. By the 2028 Olympics it might be a city we've not even thought about. So at the same time you've got a game that is expanding into host nations that are at best emerging and I think somewhere in that mix is huge potential. But it strikes me as self-defeating to close down an expanding market because you're nervous it's going to impact on the more traditional side. Actually, properly harnessed, a lot of kids might come through sevens and be attracted to play at test level.
Beth Coalter: I think you're right because the IRB's remit is the game for all and sevens doesn't provide for the little fat guy or the really heavy guy or the one that isn't a quick thinker, but there's a place for everybody in 15s.
Gregory: Hong Kong is demonstrating the effect that sevens is having. We try to have our players playing both codes all the time, but we're getting to the point where it's inevitable we're going to have a [specialised] team of sevens players.
Q: Will countries like Hong Kong have to decide which version to focus their resources on?
Gregory: Yes, and for us there will have to be a decision and the decision will be on May 12, immediately after the qualifier to become a core team in London.
Q: How big is it for smaller countries like Fiji, who don't have many chances to win Olympic medals, that sevens is now in the gmaes?
Waisale Serevi: It is huge. It was an honour and privilege for me to be part of the bidding committee. It's a great opportunity for Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. In Fiji, they tell me, 'We're going to go win the gold medal'. I have to tell them, 'It's not going to be that easy!'
Q: How will the games cope without the household names of 15S?
Coe: I don't think the IOC would sit there deciding the competition was successful or not on the basis of who was there. All I would hope is, as chairman of the BOA, that the construction of the GB team is a lot easier than trying to figure out the GB soccer team!
Gregory: I'd refer you to the Commonwealth Games where rugby sevens sells out faster than any other event and plays to packed houses no matter where it is and no matter who's playing.
Lee: I agree it is a concern, but it's also the IRB's job to help build the sevens stars, like the Carlin Isles story, three million hits on YouTube, social media can be huge.
Q: The media can create stars too, are there innovations in the media the IRB is looking at?
Lee: Broadcasters can drive that, for example in America with NBC - it's hugely exciting for us to have a broadcaster like that supporting rugby - they're also coming to us with ideas. It's up to us to make it as exciting as we can without taking away from the integrity of the sport or player welfare.
Coalter: Really the focus for us is to make sure we get the best pictures, the increase we've had on people picking up on it on social media is huge.
Lee: The way people are consuming media and sport has changed, people don't want to watch 80-minute games as much as they once did, so having high quality clips available on mobile and internet is very important.
Q: What will it take for China's public to engage with the sport?
Giles Morgan: I think it will require one Olympics with the sevens being played, televised through CCTV-5 for the Chinese public to see the game and then there will be that natural growth. Sevens still needs the global audience, the broadcast figures are encouraging, but they're not truly global and it will require the Olympics to make it that global game, particularly in countries like China.