Wednesday's Ruck & Maul
A Perspective From Sydney Sevens. (Georgina Robinson; Sydney Morning Herald.)
"Let us be frank. The very best thing about the Sydney Sevens is that it is nothing like normal rugby.
This needs to be said, not because the code needs its shortcomings pointed out any more in the news media after last year's painful trajectory, but because sevens in Australia is suffering from a cultural cringe of sorts.
"I don't know if I should be saying this but I think it needs people up the top to take it seriously," retiring Australian men's captain Ed Jenkins said last week. "I think a lot of people don't actually know what we do and how professional we are about what we do. I think they turn on the TV and see a big party in the stadiums ... little do they know the work and hours we put in every week to be out there playing and being competitive."
It is a view widely held within both squads, but particularly the men's, who have in real and symbolic terms been the poorer cousins to 15s rugby throughout the game's short history. Sevens players are not as well-paid as the majority of their Super Rugby and Wallabies contemporaries and for many years the squad was a glorified development team for the Super Rugby clubs. The gap is narrowing thanks to a new domestic competition for the women's game, Olympics inclusion and pay parity in the new collective bargaining agreement.
Still, there is no doubt the format is in its awkward tweens, if not its infancy, with the running costs of a professional program but the commercial revenue of a fringe sport. It could do with more money from head office and much more revenue from commercial partners. But what sport couldn't in this land of spoiled sports fans?
Which leaves the matter of perception. The party tag. The packed stadium, a riot of colour and sound. The families in fancy dress and the groups of young men and women juggling beers and sombreros. The sections of Fiji fans, Kenya fans, Tonga fans, and the small army that assembled to cheer on Cam Clark last year.
Sorry, what was the problem again? The party? The sold-out stadium? The families having fun? Sounds like the best game of rugby on the calendar this year.
Let us excuse some Bledisloe Cup Tests from the discussion. And Super Rugby finals - Sydney hosted one of those once, remember? The Shute Shield grand final doesn't go too badly either. Long may it live at North Sydney Oval? But the rest of the year's offering from the game they play in heaven? Let the Waratahs average home crowd last year speak for itself: 14,500. That's Allianz Stadium two-thirds empty for Australia's largest Super Rugby club. Or last year's Sydney Bledisloe Test, the smallest crowd in the professional era for that fixture.
Sure, the focus on Friday will be less on the ruck than the Mexican wave, while the production line of 14-minute matches will blur into each other between drinks runs for some punters. But all it will take is one jinking break from former Coogee Wombat, Maurice Longbottom and the crowd will be on their feet. It's not that they don't appreciate your efforts, Ed Jenkins, it's just that they're having a good time as well.
In its two years on the Sydney summer schedule, the sevens has sold out on the Saturday and Sunday and filled Oxford Street in Paddington with legions of merry fans each evening. It is a shame this year's tournament falls on the first Australia Day long weekend in three years, when many in Sydney use it as their last chance to get out of the city for an extended period. Ticket sales have been softer as a result, but those who do roll up next Friday will still feel part of a big, colourful and international crowd, which is another excellent feature of the shortened format.
As one administrator pointed out this week: "People aren't just going to see Australia at the sevens, they're there to see Fiji, Kenya, and the track stars in the USA team". Not to mention the families, who embrace the daytime kick-off. Even the suits at head office are pleased, because it presents them with a slice of the live sport market left stone cold by the 80-minute Saturday night Super Rugby offering.
The sevens players should be proud of the party they bring to their stuffy old code and not lust too hard after being taken seriously, outside head office at least. Seriousness is rugby's Achilles heel for the other 11 months of the year. Serious scrums, serious penalties, serious questions and seriously dour crowds.
So Ed, Sydney will miss you this year, but you needn't worry about the standing of your beloved sevens. It's true. It is nothing like 'normal rugby'. And that's what makes it so bloody good to watch.
CW will be well represented in Sydney with “P.K.” – Piggy born and raised, Pat Kay, who has hung his Premier Hat with CW; Mike Fuailefau, starting with V.V. but a “dinky-die” Tricolour; Luke McCloskey, product of the CW Mini Mill; and Caroline Crossley, also from the same production line. We wish all of these players and their team mates every success, for most of us around here know that our Sevens players are totally professional and extremely hard-working in all that they do.