I was fortunate enough to spend last week at the Rosslyn Park HSBC National Schools Sevens tournament in south-west London. I will take some fantastic memories away from the week, having enjoyed some unseasonably warm weather and some rugby of the highest quality. However, I think the sentiment that resonated most in me immediately afterwards was a conviction that if rugby union wants to expand its appeal – and I hope that it does – then grassroots sevens events are almost certainly the best way to do so.
John Kirwan spoke a fortnight ago about the prospect of rugby becoming a ‘global game’, using sevens as a ‘catalyst’. He pointed to the inclusion of sevens in the Olympics from 2016 onwards as crucial to growth of the sport, such will be the funding from governments chasing Olympic glory and the increased revenue it brings. Certainly, Olympic inclusion (coupled with the induction of Argentina into the Tri-Nations, effectively bringing regular international rugby to a whole new continent) is a great stride for rugby and of course taking the game to ‘new markets’ is desirable.
However, there is a danger of letting the geographical expansion of the game’s appeal take total primacy over its social expansion. It will not matter how many countries the sport reaches; it will never be truly ‘global’ if it only appeals to a narrow social demographic.
The problem is not as bad as it once was, but a cursory glance at most England age group sides will show that comprehensive schools remain woefully under-represented in elite rugby in the UK. When Graham Henry labeled England ‘World Champions of wasting talent’ a few months ago he was probably referring only to the misuse of existing players; if he had considered the vast numbers of English (indeed British) people who miss out on the opportunity to play rugby even once then perhaps an even more damning title might have been required.
To a small extent the problem stems from logistical and financial barriers to entry to the game (and indeed one coach’s anecdote at Rosslyn Park of keen players who simply could not afford boots was a real eye-opener). However, the sad fact is that in some quarters of the UK rugby is still seen as a sport reserved for the ‘posh boys’ – the main barriers are cultural.
Happily, these cultural barriers can be prevented if nipped in the bud and that is exactly what events like the Rosslyn Park HSBC National Schools Sevens tournament are doing. It is heartening to see schools like Rutlish, a comprehensive based in Merton, battling to the latter stages of the junior tournament this year, a feat that many fee-paying, supposedly ‘posher’ schools could not match. Traditional private school powerhouses and specialist sports colleges continue to perform disproportionately well given their number, but hopefully the coming years will exhibit sustained and heightened competition from schools with no traditional rugby pedigree.
And just as grassroots sevens are not reserved for the ‘posh’, nor are they restricted to the boys. Around 200 girls take part in a separate tournament at Rosslyn Park and this year was of a markedly higher standard than I for one, perhaps naively, expected. The physicality and skill on show, in the knockout stages in particular, was impressive and Bob Reeves, RFU Junior Vice President, noted that “the standard has just got so much better in recent times”, adding that tournaments like Rosslyn Park are showcases for girls pushing for higher honours.
The real merit of grassroots sevens events such as Rosslyn Park, though, is that young players can enjoy the off-field ambience of an environment filled with passion for the game and its values. In breaks between games, teams including those that had been knocked out were able to watch other matches, discuss all things rugby with their teammates (and, even more importantly, players from other teams) and there was discounted equipment on sale that proved popular with youngsters. For one week, young players from across the breadth of the nation – and indeed some from further afield – share the same rugby-centred experience, regardless of their background.
Rugby stars were present too, with Jason Robinson and Ben Gollings helping players hone their skills in coaching clinics throughout the week, with humility and articulacy. Robinson in particular, who attended a comprehensive school in Yorkshire, sets a wonderful example for children from environments where rugby lacks the hotbed of support it has, for example, in the south-east. A number of unofficial visits from numerous personalities of the Aviva Premiership also punctuated the week and even if some of the younger players did not know exactly who they were lucky enough to be meeting, the prospect that some might go home and look up these sportsmen is encouraging.
But will the growth of sevens preclude the expansion of the full 15-a-side game? Will we see the development of two distinct, perhaps rival, disciplines if we invest so heavily in sevens tournaments for young players? I think not.
Instead, the relationship between the two should be seen as one of symbiosis. Sevens represents a great avenue for players to develop the basic skills of the game, as well as a lively, intense spectacle that will attract fans. 15s offers perhaps more tactical nuance and a higher profile in the nations it has conquered. The list of fifteen-a-side international players who at some point involved themselves in the seven-a-side code (Gareth Edwards, Lawrence Dallaglio and, more recently Alex Cuthbert to the fore) is testimony to this symbiosis. The fact that in most nations the same union presides over both teams and that both sides wear the same brand on their jerseys means that the success of one code is generally linked to the success of the other.
The Rugby World Cup, the third biggest sporting event on the planet comes to England in three and a half years time. It is imperative that in the interim period the game continues to experience internal growth, as well as the international growth that John Kirwan has so vocally supported. Grassroots sevens events are crucial for this and might be the key to ensuring that when England does come under the scrutiny of the world in 2015, the world will not find a country where pockets of passionate rugby fans are separated by channels of apathy, but a nation uniformly captivated by love for the game.