World series? Pull the other one

The International Rugby Board has to rethink its global sevens programme to make it fairer and more inclusive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 2:53pm

Has the HSBC Sevens World Series become a closed shop? It certainly seemed that way at this season's finale at Twickenham, where predictably the three core teams who were "relegated" - Spain, Scotland and Portugal - found themselves back in the fold for next season at the expense of the wannabes including Hong Kong.

We have maintained all along the three teams who found themselves at the bottom of the standings after the penultimate leg, the Glasgow Sevens, would have an advantage because of the sorry system used by the International Rugby Board, simply because they would be battle-hardened and more experienced than the other five aspirants - Hong Kong, Russia, Tonga, Georgia and Zimbabwe.

Former England sevens captain Ben Gollings agreed. He said Spain were too hot for Hong Kong because they were used to playing at a different intensity and level. The Spanish were powerful and more physically imposing. They had tall timber and played to their strengths in knocking out Hong Kong 29-14 in the quarter-finals, but their game had been honed through appearing in eight legs of the world series.

Allowing the three bottom-placed teams to immediately win back their berths made a mockery of the IRB's so-called promotion-relegation system and its much-trumpeted claim to spread the game globally. Even IRB chief executive Brett Gosper conceded that perhaps a rethink was necessary when saying the aim was to "ensure every country had bona fide access" to playing in the world series. "It is not a closed shop," Gosper said. Well, the IRB has to match these words with deeds and change its qualifying format next season.

The London Sevens was also an eye-opener on double standards. The world governing body turned down Hong Kong's request this year to host a leg of the Women's Sevens World Series on account of the city not having the facilities to run both the men's and women's tournaments side by side. The main reason was facilities were lacking at Hong Kong Stadium.

If this was the case, how come Hong Kong and the other seven sides in the core-team qualifiers were banished to an outside pitch at Twickenham that is usually used by a school.

It was segregation at its worst. The most important part of the London Sevens was being played on an outside pitch while the core-team tournament, already in New Zealand's locker, graced the main pitch. It is possible that large sections of the crowd didn't even know a qualifying event was being played.

If Hong Kong could host a 28-team event, albeit over three days, inside one venue, it is sad that the RFU couldn't manage to put on a smaller, 20-team event inside its home of rugby.

Which raises the question: do the RFU or other big rugby nations really need to host a leg of the world series? Wouldn't it be better if the IRB used this sevens vehicle to truly propagate the message by taking it to destinations outside the traditional boundaries? They would certainly be better organised than London.

If the grounds issue was the responsibility of the RFU, the IRB must carry the burden for a poorly thought-out qualifying tournament. Originally, all eight teams were under the impression that after the two pools of round-robin competition, the teams would be ranked one to four and they would play crossover quarter-finals. But on the eve of the tournament, it was discovered the teams would be ranked from one to eight and this would decide the quarter-final round (1 v 8, 2 v 7 etc).

For such a system to work best, it should have meant all eight teams played each other in round-robin preliminaries. This would have given a truer ranking picture. Instead, we had Hong Kong, with a 2-2 record, losing out.

At the end of the day, what the London Sevens showed was the promotion-relegation system is a farce. Also it would be far better if London began the world series, say in September, when the focus would be more on sevens than 15s in England - all week the English media focused on the local leagues, which were at the crucial tail end of the season - and the weather would be better, too. It would also give Hong Kong, undoubtedly the best tournament by far now that I have been to London, Wellington and Dubai, the chance to round off the series.