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After trying to shut Hong Kong’s media out of their own Sevens, strapping tape saga shows World Rugby are still the master of the backflip

Governing body’s move to reverse decision banning players from displaying messages smacks of its run-in with the Post in April

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 11:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 8:12pm

It seems the top brass at World Rugby have been busy perfecting their backflips, with this week’s stink about players posting messages on their wrist strapping the latest example of the sport’s governing body putting the cart before the horse.

It was widely reported earlier in the week that World Rugby had banned players from writing messages on the strapping tape on their wrists in the HSBC Sevens World Series to align with International Olympic Committee regulations.

By Thursday – after a social media storm led by the likes of Sonny Bill Williams’ sister Niall – it had changed tack, with The New Zealand Herald reporting messages would in fact be allowed and would be policed by team managers.

It reminds me of a similar situation back in April when the governing body issued a directive, certainly without consulting anyone at the Post and likely any media at all, that photographers would not be able to take pictures of the trophy presentation at the Hong Kong Sevens in order to accommodate television.

It eventually reneged, allowing the Post’s photographers to get the shots they needed. But fair dinkum, first it goes and tells a section of the media they can’t do something without reaching out first, and then it does the same thing to its very own players.

Surely history tells you as a sports body that if anyone is going to kick-up a fuss about being told they can’t do something it’s the media and the players.

World Rugby said in a statement that it’s latest move was based on “a common-sense approach that has been accepted by all participating teams”.

Indeed it probably was, but as was the case back in April, the delivery was way off the mark.

The New Zealand Rugby Players Association said the rule was “buried” in a participation agreement signed by teams ahead of the season, with chief executive Rob Nichol calling the initiative “poorly implemented”.

Nichol said he was confident that most messages displayed by players are of a personal rather than political nature and the chaos that ensued suggests the players take their right to display messages rather more personally than World Rugby predicted.

Niall Williams made it clear how much having her daughters initials on her wrist meant to her, while Canada women’s player Jen Kish tweeted “My freedom to express myself on the pitch is worth more than a 1k fine but the last thing I want is to fund u! #YouWin”.

Kish had previously written the message #ruckcancer on her strapping – hardly the sort of thing that you want to be banning.

Of course, the target is anything political and also messages that have over the years grown so large that some cover players’ entire forearms.

But as World Rugby have now worked out, blanket banning something – especially when it comes to freedom of expression – is not the answer.

Squeezed out of our own event: World Rugby restricts media from Hong Kong Sevens ceremonies

And all of this came just days before this weekend’s season-opening Dubai Sevens as World Rugby battles to keep the World Series relevant in the Olympic era that threatens to turn it into a four-year warm-up.

Ben Ryan – who led Fiji to the first Olympic gold medal last year – said in March he thought an overhaul would be needed to ensure the series maintained it’s high standards.

He recommended less teams, shorter days and stretching every tournament to three days to mirror Olympic competition.

World Rugby’s rule banning messages on strapping in Sevens ‘poorly implemented’ as players face US$1,000 fines

At this stage, however, not a lot has changed and this year’s series is structurally much the same as the last.

The Wellington Sevens is now the Hamilton Sevens and the Commonwealth Games has meant some slight changes in scheduling, but on the whole the product is the same.

What isn’t the same, however, is that the momentum rugby sevens had coming off the back of a hugely successful tournament in Rio has now petered out, and the World Series must generate interest under its own steam.

Hong Kong Sevens in danger of losing its soul to World Rugby’s cookie-cutter series

It will be the first time we get to see how much the down time between Olympics – and Olympic build-up – impacts people’s interest.

While Hong Kong will always be Hong Kong and Dubai is taken care of, it will be a long year for the suits if it turns out the best way to promote each of the other eight rounds is to create a brouhaha and then artistically manoeuvre out of it the moment anyone questions you.