At the recently concluded Olympic Games in Rio, rugby union made a triumphant return after a 92-year absence in the form of its abbreviated version, 7-a-side rugby and it did not fail to deliver.
At the end of the day, this was to increase the global popularity of the sport, which has been ongoing since it was re-introduced into the Olympics programme in 2009, allowing national recognition and government funding for the game, particularly in countries that were not traditionally associated with it. Rugby sevens certainly made an impact at this year’s global multi-events tournament in different ways.
The introduction of rugby sevens allowed smaller Olympics nations a chance to compete for glory. A shining example would be the Fijian men’s sevens team, which included a familiar face to Glasgow Warriors supporters in Leone Nakarawa, who won their country’s first ever-Olympic gold medal by defeating Great Britain by 43-7 in the final.
It was an impressive feat for a small island nation but its size does not fool anyone as the country has long been a powerhouse in sevens and there were high expectations at home for the team to win nothing less than gold, sentiments echoed by the prime minister.
However, the humility and grace shown by the Fijians in victory was the perfect advertisement for rugby union and Olympics values. Closer to home, Edinburgh Rugby have recently signed one of the gold medalists in Viliame Mata.
Meanwhile, the Japanese men’s team replicated the form of their 15s counterparts at last year’s Rugby World Cup by miraculously defeating New Zealand. This does show how rugby sevens can provide an additional platform for smaller nations to compete on this stage.
The Olympics has also increased rugby union’s exposure to millions of new fans around the world due to the fast-paced and comprehensible nature of sevens. Most notably is the United States, in which one of the players for the men’s sevens team was the NFL’s New England Patriots special teamer Nate Ebner who played rugby before being drafted in 2012.
Despite technically being the defending champions since 1924, when rugby was last played at the Olympics, the USA team missed out on gold at Rio but Ebner’s selection increased the sport’s visibility in the States, allowing the American audience to be exposed to a sport that is a little different to the NFL. Matthew McConaughey turning up at matches certainly helped as well.
There were also Vietnamese-language highlights of the women’s sevens on YouTube and judging from the comment section, people were intrigued. The women’s game also benefited from Olympics exposure, although it left much to be desired. The Australian women’s sevens team performed beyond expectations, leaving something for the ARU to be happy about considering the recent woeful performances by the Wallabies.
Women’s participation in the game has also been the fastest growing area of the sport, now accounting for 30 per cent of the global playing number. This presents an opportunity for increased investment and coverage in the women’s game, with an emphasis on sevens which has much more of an entertainment factor than the traditional 15s game.
However, at Rio, there were logistical issues relating to venues; extortionate ticket prices and poor media coverage, which may have limited the impact from the women’s sevens, compared to their male counterparts. The marriage proposal to Brazil women’s sevens player Isadora Cerullo provided a ‘feel-good’ factor to the tournament and promoted a progressive image of the sport.
In general, despite certain shortcomings, rugby sevens was a big hit (pardon the pun) at the Rio Olympics. It is important to maintain the momentum through further investment in the sport in both the men’s game and women’s game whilst attracting further interest in new corners of the globe. In Tokyo, in four years’ time, rugby sevens will be an even bigger spectacle.
Image courtesy of Daniel