Olympic status will serve as a catalyst to turn rugby into a truly global game and see sevens become the worlds fastest growing sport, according to legends John Kirwan and Gavin Hastings, who are in Dubai for the IRB Sevens series this weekend. The sevens format has enabled nations such as Fiji, Samoa and Kenya to compete with the established giants of the game but the global reach has remained fairly limited. Gavin Hastings, former captain of Scotland and the British & Irish Lions, says that the Olympics presents rugby with an unprecedented opportunity to expand. "The fact that rugby sevens is now an olympic sport provides an amazing platform to grow. It will give an opportunity for teams who have never participated in sevens before to take up the sport.
"It is an enormous decision and just watch how rugby nations will develop from nowhere over the next twenty years as a result. There is no question that sevens is the way to grow the game. Rugby will not be a truly global sport until it involves Asia, Africa and South America and sevens will be the vehicle to do that." His confidence is shared by John Kirwan, the coach of Japan and All Blacks great. "In 25 years time sevens will be a bigger game than fifteens. It has a party atmosphere, is played at a fast pace and is easy to understand. "I believe it will become the worlds fastest growing sport. There is no question that Asia will be introduced to rugby through sevens and not fifteens." Last year's Rugby Sevens World Cup in Dubai played a key role in showcasing sevens' potential as an Olympic sport. The diversity of participating nations, competitiveness of the games and the popularity of the event were key factors in it being chosen as the latest Olympic discipline. Both Hastings and Kirwan believe that the prestige of the Olympics will in turn prompt an increase in government funding for the sport. "Sevens is bringing rugby to a new audience. Tournaments like the Dubai Sevens will spring up across the world and sevens players will become professionals playing for specialist franchises," says Hastings. "There is an obvious comparison with what Twenty 20 format is doing for cricket. The crowds are getting bigger and bigger and more and more countries are becoming competitive." Beyond the excitement and adrenaline of the format, Kirwan believes that the secret of its success lies in its simplicity. "Fifteens a side is a very complicated game. Trying to explain the rules to a ten-year-old boy is almost impossible. Sevens overcomes most of the obstacles to introducing kids to the game.
"It is easier to play, easier to coach and this in turn makes it easier to introduce into schools. Rugby commands only a tiny fraction of the world's sporting market even though we consider it to be a major sport. But imagine how this will grow if sevens introduces the sport to Asia, Africa and America." Like Twenty20 is perceived as a threat by some to Test cricket, the sevens is seen in a similar context by the traditionalists. But Kirwan believes that, far from presenting a threat to fifteens, a planned approach can see the success of sevens revitalise rugby as a whole.
Hastings, on the other hand, sees the two formats developing in parallel with players choosing to specialise in one or the other. "The Six Nations and Tri Nations tournaments are so established that sevens will not pose a threat to their popularity. The two formats cab coexist quite happily. "As the game expands there is no guarantee that traditional rugby nations will stay at the top of table. But individual nations cannot be selfish, the health of the global game is more important." "Some players will chose to specialise solely in sevens, as Ben Gollings has done so successfully for England. Sevens players like Waisale Serevi are artists of the game and in ten years time sevens will have its own heroes and that can only be good for the game." he said. Both Gavin Hastings and John Kirwan are in Dubai as ambassadors for HSBC and have been leading coaching clinics for school children in Abu Dhabi this week.