The Sevens debate

Does Sevens justify the time and money invested in it by Saru and Sasol? SA Rugby magazine investigates.

The Springboks lost to Tonga and no-one cared. No-one called for the coach’s head, no-one phoned a radio station to complain and no-one sent an angry letter to a newspaper. That’s because it was the Springbok Sevens team that lost to Tonga in the quarter-finals of the Wellington Sevens in New Zealand. A team made up of players who weren’t considered good enough to play in the Super? 14 this year. Players who probably would not be recognised if they walked down the streets of rugby-mad Pretoria.

It is not politically correct to criticise Sevens rugby in this country. Various marketing departments have done a good job of making us believe that Sevens is fast, fun and furious, when in fact it is often painful, predictable and pointless – at least when the best players are not involved. Remember when the Springbok Sevens team reached the final of the Sevens World Cup in 1997? Public interest was high because players such as Joost van der Westhuizen and Bob Skinstad took part. South Africans identified with the team because they identified with the players. The likes of Mpho Mbiyozo, Frankie Horn, Vuyo Zangqa, Neil Powell, Schalk van der Merwe, Renfred Dazel and Jonathan Mokuena are not rated among the top 150 players in the country, so why should we bother watching them play Sevens? Surely fringe Super?14 players, who spend most of the season outside of the match 22, could be made available for major Sevens events such as Hong Kong, Wellington and George?

Andy Marinos, manager of national teams at the South African Rugby Union (Saru), admits this would be ideal.

‘I would like to see [Bok Sevens coach] Paul Treu be allowed to pick whoever he wants for the George Sevens in December, as this is South Africa’s leg of the IRB Sevens World Series. We also need to discuss the possibility of including Super?14 players for Sevens events that take place during the Super?14. We certainly should add a few of these players to the Sevens squad for the 2009 Sevens World Cup [in Dubai] and the 2010 Commonwealth Games [in Delhi].’

I ask Marinos why South Africa bothers playing Sevens rugby. Is it a tool for development, ie, it gives promising black players the chance to play at international level? Or is it used to prepare players for 15-man rugby at Super?14 and Test level?

‘I wouldn’t call it a tool for development,’ he says. ‘It’s more a platform where young emerging players can display their talents on a world stage and gain invaluable experience playing under pressure in front of big crowds.’

Marinos also believes Sevens helps players make an impact in 15-man rugby. However, a study of recent Springbok Sevens squads shows that these players rarely go on to be successful Super?14 or Test players (Kabamba Floors and Jaco Pretorius the obvious exceptions).

Take a look at this Bok Sevens squad selected in 2005: Gcobani Bobo, Howard Noble, Dusty Noble, Mpho Mbiyozo, Jandre Blom, Jonathan Mokuena, Renfred Dazel, Antonius Verhoeven, Schalk van der Merwe, Mzwandile Stick, Marius Schoeman, Stefan Basson. Of those players, only Bobo (Sharks) and Dusty Noble (Lions) were named in Super?14 starting XVs for the first round this year. The rest are either languishing in the Vodacom Cup or still playing Sevens. I ask Marinos if this concerns him.

‘Yes and no,’ he replies. ‘The players that have progressed, like Pretorius and Floors, deserve to be there. My worry is that often players like Thobela Mdaka, Jonathan Mokuena and Mzwandile Stick, who have done well at Sevens, are given limited opportunities to prove themselves at Super? 14 level. I believe they could have made an impact if coaches had backed them.’

Another concern is that South African Sevens stars rarely make a successful transition to 15-man rugby. Fabian Juries is regarded as possibly the best local Sevens player ever yet he has repeatedly failed to crack it at Super?14 level. Former SA Sevens Player of the Year Stefan Basson always posed a threat in the IRB Sevens World Series yet failed to cement a spot in the Blue Bulls Currie Cup team and eventually signed with Italian club Rovigo.

‘Some players are just better suited to playing Sevens rugby,’ is Marinos’s response. ‘To play Test rugby these days you have to have certain physical attributes.’

Interestingly, a Bok Sevens player can now earn the same salary as a first-choice Super? 14 player. Treu fought hard for two-year contracts for his players, so they could focus on playing Sevens and not worry about being selected for 15-man teams (where all the money used to be). The team now also has a permanent base in Stellenbosch, where they prepare for IRB events.

But does a Sevens players deserve the same salary as a Super? 14 player? There are severe consequences when a South African Super?14 team performs badly. Coaches are fired and players are dropped. That pressure to perform is not nearly as intense in Sevens. The Boks can lose to Tonga in the quarter-finals of the Wellington Sevens, and no heads roll. Super ?14 players face a gruelling 13-match schedule that includes nightmare four- or five-match tours to New Zealand and Australia, whereas our Sevens players compete in eight IRB events a season (all are held over two days, except for Hong Kong which is three). The bodies of Super?14 players also take a severe beating, whereas Sevens players obviously take a lot less contact.

From a results point of view, the Sevens Boks are in no position to demand more money. In the eight-year existence of the IRB Sevens World Series, the Boks have finished fifth on the log three times and fourth three times. Their best finish was a silver medal way back in 2000-01, although the Boks had moved up to second on the log midway through the current series.

Not once has the coach’s job (Chester Williams’s or Treu’s) been under threat, because this lack of success is seemingly tolerated. However, Marinos insists Saru has high expectations of the Sevens side.

‘We want to be No 1 in Sevens and 15-man rugby,’ he says. ‘Treu has key performance indicators against which he is judged annually, and he is given incentives for a first-place log finish. We are currently in a building phase for the 2009 Sevens World Cup. We have targeted this event as one we must win.’ Marinos does not say what will happen to Treu if the Boks fall short.

Having spoken to Saru, SA Rugby magazine approached the International Rugby Board (IRB), which finances world Sevens. I asked Greg Thomas, the head of communications, why they bother with this form of the game.

‘Sevens is now becoming a distinct sport in its own right, and at the elite level it is played by the best players,’ he says, ignoring the fact that the world’s best players – such as Bryan Habana and Matt Giteau – do not take part. ‘In fact, top 15-man players would now find it hard to compete in the IRB Sevens World Series,’ he adds. That’s another debatable point. ‘At the 2005 Commonwealth Games Sevens, Australia’s Lote Tuqiri and Chris Latham and England’s Mathew Tait found that the standard of Sevens – skill, speed and fitness – had improved dramatically over the last five years.’

Thomas says unions around the world are using Sevens as a development tool (which contradicts Marinos’s earlier statement) for up-and-coming talent to find their feet on the international stage against quality players and in front of crowds normally expected at Test matches. ‘The IRB recently discovered that 153 players at the World Cup in France had also played Sevens rugby for their countries,’ he adds. ‘That is 25.5% of the 600 registered players at the World Cup. This development process is a big reason why Sevens should be funded.’

However, the main reason the IRB backs Sevens is that it’s the only way for the sport to return to the Olympic Games. Fifteen-man rugby debuted at the 1900 Olympics in Paris and featured in London in 1908, Antwerp in 1920 and Paris in 1924. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) then scrapped it as an Olympic sport.

Fast-forward to 2008. Sevens rugby is a core sport of the Commonwealth Games, and 50?000 fans watched the final day’s play in Melbourne three years ago. Sevens is also part of the World Games and Asian Games and will soon be part of the Pan-American Games and All-Africa Games. However, entry to the Olympics has remained elusive for the IRB.

In 2005, the IOC voted on the current sports programme, and baseball and softball were removed from the 2012 London Olympics (they will be at Beijing this year). A vote was then taken to decide if two other sports should be added to reach the maximum of 28. Rugby Sevens, karate, squash, golf and roller sport were put forward, but none was accepted into the programme (the IRB still doesn’t know why). The irony is that IOC president Jacques Rogge is rugby-mad and played for Belgium. However, he has been under pressure since becoming president in 2001, and others in the organisation have used his support for rugby against him.
The IOC will vote again on the sports programme in 2009, when the IRB again plans to state its Sevens case. According to recent reports, the IRB will appoint a professional lobbyist to target those countries – and those votes – they need.

From a commercial point of view, the IRB will also agree to fund and underwrite the organisation of any Olympic Sevens tournament, which would in any case be a huge money spinner for the IOC. The tournament would be held over two days (the Beijing stadium will be empty for six during this year’s Olympics) along with a women’s event.

The IRB believes an Olympics Sevens tournament would help to grow the game around the world. ‘Many governments only fund sports that are part of the Olympic programme,’ explains Thomas. ‘We would unlock substantial additional funding in countries in regions such as South America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.’

If Sevens were accepted into the Olympic fold, Saru would have no choice but to make the country’s best players available for selection. And perhaps then Sevens in this country will gain serious respect.

By Simon Borchardt

This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale now.