Olympic Rugby Sevens: 'A Phenomenal Game That The World Is Going To See'

Increasingly accepted as a specialist sport, rugby sevens is set to take the world by storm at the Olympics, according to Australia coach Andy Friend.

It wasn’t that long ago that sevens rugby was considered the poor, fun, drunk cousin of the XV-man game. It was the Contiki Tour of sports, with a world series that took in fancy-dress parties in Wellington, Las Vegas, Cape Town and, of course, the almighty booze-fest at the sport’s spiritual home of Hong Kong. And it was all a bit of a giggle, and not a sport for “proper” players.

No more. Because sevens rugby is going to Rio. And with the non-selection of stars Jarryd Hayne (for Fiji) and Quade Cooper (Australia), it seems that purists, pundits and punters are coming around to the fact that sevens is a singular, specialised and highly-demanding sport in itself. You don’t just wander in off the streets of San Francisco or Toulon and make the nut, be you flash 49er or fancy-pants Wallaby.

Andy Friend is Australia’s men’s sevens head coach, and something of a hard-acre. Once an outstanding Australian schoolboys fullback, a succession of knee injuries saw him go bush to test himself on “Outward Bound” survival trips in Canberra’s frozen Brindabella ranges. Think Bear Grylls in a beanie. He once mountain-biked 5000km on bush tracks from Cooktown to Canberra. He learned rugby and man-management at the cold hard teat of Eddie Jones. Friend is a hard critter.

And thus when a trio of ARU heavyweights conference-called him to find out why the ARU had flown Cooper back from France for the Sydney Sevens – and Friend had not picked him – the coach held firm to his convictions. Cooper hadn’t made the team because he wasn’t good enough, not in the short week they gave him, anyway. And Friend wasn’t going to disrespect the jumper, the players – the very game – by picking a bloke for publicity. It was a ballsy call by a coach three days in the job.

But in terms of the game, it was an easy one. For as talented as Cooper is, sevens rugby demands a specialised athlete. Speed is the biggest thing. You need the “true gas” of the pace ace. You also need optimal VO2 capacity, the ability to suck large amounts of oxygen into the lungs. You need to get up when you’re down, repeatedly. You also have to make decisions when it feels like your lungs could shoot out your mouth.

While on tour in June, Jones told a rugby lunch that the England rugby camp keeps only two statistics: getting back in line after defending; and getting back in line after attacking. It’s the one true test of attitude. The Australians call it “BIG” – Back In Game. It means that when a player’s off his feet, he has three seconds to get back into the line. And if the player can’t do that at least 90% of the time, well, perhaps playing sevens for Australia is not his thing.

“Mistakes tend to hurt you in this game,” says Friend. “Miss a tackle, drop a ball, it’s likely the other team will make you pay. You need to have a skill-set under pressure.

“You’ve also got to be resilient and be able to handle a fair bit. Players need to be mentally tough enough to sustain the rigours of the game and make good decisions when absolutely fatigued.

“And they need a desire to play for their country.”

Unlike professional golfers, say – or really most professional sports folk – the Australian sevens team flies economy. They’re big men in the back of the plane, flying long-haul. Their flight home from Vancouver went via Los Angeles and took 20 hours. Their flight from Samoa went via Paris and took 50 hours. Australian rugby is sponsored by Qantas. The team flies with whoever’s cheapest.

The composition of a sevens team features two props, a hooker, a “9” – the halfback – and a “10” – first man off the ruck. Then there’s a centre and a winger. There are utility men who can cover a couple of positions. But generally, your sevens player is quite specialised. And they’re expected to cover – and exploit – acres of space.

The three areas of attack are though the middle, on the edge, and in behind. You need men to rumble combatively “up the guts”. You need inside guys skilful enough to swing it wide to speed men. And you need halves with the vision and skill to kick behind the line for speed guys to chase … and then defend if they don’t get there first.

We’re at Knox Grammar School on Sydney’s north shore watching Friend’s team play Japan in the last of a series of “mock Rio” matches before the team is announced. They’ve played the Japanese to simulate pool games in Rio against South Africa, Spain and France. They’re just back from Darwin where they ran around in 33 degree heat and 80% humidity for the “physiological benefits,” according to Friend, who described the camp as “perfect”. The players came home sore and stretched, but unbroken. This week there’ll be another “over reach week” of over-inflated lungs.

And then they’re away – economy for Rio.

The men’s and women’s teams will stay in the Olympic Village and join the Opening Ceremony. And unlike those who’ve brushed the chance to represent Australia, those who make the squad will do so knowing that they’ve trained for years for the right to do it. The pride one would feel walking out to represent Australia in the Olympics, the coat-of-arms on the chest … well, how about that?

“The players are absolutely thrilled,” says Friend. “The Olympics is the pinnacle of every athlete’s dream. For sevens to be accepted in the Olympics is a massive buzz and really good for our game. For sevens to be at Rio in front of a billion people or however many people will watch it, it’s just phenomenal.”

World Rugby (formerly IRB) reckons Rio will be a “game-changer” for the game worldwide. They can make a case. Since the IOC voted for rugby’s inclusion, women’s participation has grown from 200,000 to two million. More than one million children have been introduced to the sport through World Rugby’s “Get Into Rugby” programme in schools. The Olympic TV scheduling allows high visibility in major markets. NBC will show rugby in the US on free-to-air TV.

“It’s difficult to overstate how important Olympic inclusion has been for rugby,” says a World Rugby spokesperson. “Governments, national Olympic committees, educational bodies are embracing the sport, investing in it. Rugby is being taught in schools in countries such as the USA, Brazil and China where previously it wasn’t because only Olympic sports make the curriculum.”

In Australia, millions will tune into watch the Games. It’s exposure Australian rugby plans to take advantage of. A non-contact form of sevens rugby called VIVA7s was launched last year by the ARU. It’s been introduced in schools through a five-week program called “Game On” which is being “aggressively promoted in public schools, extending our reach beyond the traditional rugby breeding grounds of private schools”, according to ARU chief executive Bill Pulver.

“This year we have over 700 schools enrolled in National Rugby Week [beginning 25 July], where the students will participate in rugby sevens-related classroom activity and get out on the field to try VIVA7s. It is hoped from there that the students will develop an interest in the game and pursue an opportunity to play with their local club.”

For Friend, Rio is an opportunity to showcase the players and see they earn respect. “I hope it gives an awareness of the physical nature and the spectacle of the game. And also what quality athletes the boys are that play it. These are some of the fittest blokes you’ll ever see.

“You look at the Fijians, they’re one of the most skilful groups of athletes you’ve ever seen. You’ve got the quickest blokes who aren’t running around a track, the toughest blokes who aren’t in the boxing ring. The game has all these different athletic types and there they all are, 14 of them on one field, and they’re all having a real go.

“It’s a phenomenal game and the world’s going to see that.”

Source: The Guardian