Fall should be about 15s rugby.
|Things that we never used to see: Above, single-school high school teams playing 7s in Iowa. Below, college teams playing college-only 7s tournaments in the middle of the fall.|
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Those who love the game and accept that there’s this different version people seem to like to play in the summer come into fall with the understanding that 7s takes a back seat, and 15s steps forward.
This should be especially true in a World Cup year.
But things have changed. Sevens, a version of rugby that is 126 years old, is spilling into other aspects of the American rugby scene, and it should. Here’s why:
Sevens is an easier and better way to introduce the game to young people. USA Rugby is recognizing that 7s is ideal for very young athletes, and the simplification of the game through 7s and non-contact rugby has drastically increased the number of pre-high-school kids playing the game.
As a result, the IRB gave USA Rugby’s Rookie Rugby program its Development Awards for 2011.
Sevens is an Olympic sport. It’s the game people will associate with the Olympics. It’s starting to seem logical that 7s is the way into schools through their PE programs. It doesn’t take a lot of time to teach 7s in PE class. It even makes sense to call Rugby 7s, Olympic Rugby, then everyone new to the game understands.
Sevens as Olympic Sport and format for rugby introduction means it becomes the entry point for rugby for teenagers. Instead of trying to start regional U19 teams, coaches can think about starting school-specific 7s teams – five weeks training and learning, followed by a single-school tournament. Suddenly, you’ve somehow sneaked your way into the schools through the PE or activity programs, rather than athletics.
Now, instead of putting together one game here and one game there, you can host a tournament of local schools, with fans, parents, bands. You can put all that in a stadium and charge admission. Sevens lends itself to an impressive, football-stadium event.
If I were starting a program now, that’s how I would do it – sevens, perhaps running four or five teams in a city, overseeing younger 7s coaches, and then running a tournament every weekend.
As I wrote in Rugby Magazine over a year ago, college rugby is undergoing a revolution. Sevens is part (but certainly not all) of that revolution. The USA 7s CRC was invented to combine American fans’ love of college sports with the accessibility of those quick 7s games. You don’t have to be an expert on rugby to get a handle on what’s going on in a 7s game.
And that revolution started before the CRC even got going in June of 2010. The mere fact that players and teams embraced the CRC the way they did showed how quickly the focus of the game could change. TV, open play, many teams all at once … it energized the game.
Within a year we saw several dramatic developments. Over 17,000 people over two days paid to a see a bunch of college teams play 7s. College programs decided to change their focus during part of the season to 7s.
Seven months after the first CRC, 28 teams traveled to Las Vegas to play for one – just one – spot at the 2011 CRC.
And within 12 months, USA Rugby already had a plan in place for a national collegiate 7s championships.
The Olympics (again? Didn’t I just mention them?) have already started. The Pan-Am Games could well be the most important tournament USA Rugby has ever been involved in.
This is where the Olympic journey begins. Just think of how you can promote the game when you can tout that the USA won something. Maybe it was the silver medal, and not the gold (although the players all are expecting gold), but it can be something. It can show the US Olympic Committee that 7s is worth more support. It can make people take notice.
I love 15s rugby. It’s the greatest team sport in the world. But resistance to what 7s can do for rugby as a whole in this country isn’t helping. I get notes from readers saying I talk too much about 7s. I get notes from readers saying they much prefer 15s (many, many of those people are front-rowers, by the way, but then current and former front-rowers are by far the most vocal rugby people on any topic).
Well, I respect the love of 15s, but this fall, 15s has to compete for attention. The Pan-Am Games, the IRB World Series, the development of a Women’s IRB World Series – all competitions where the USA can win – and the explosion of interest in college 7s cannot be ignored.
And if you’re looking to start rugby from scratch somewhere, think how you could get ten kids from a single school ready to play this game, compared to a squad of 25. Think how quickly they could be playing, having fun, and showing their friends and parents what a great sport this is. Think how you could be on high school and middle-school campuses. All thanks to 7s … all thanks to Olympic Rugby.