Sevens now a world in itselfComment on this story
London – There was a time when sevens rugby union was seen mainly as a “bit of fun” and, at elite level, a handy way of giving potential Test players in 'proper' 15-a-side rugby international experience.
That time is not now.
For while an expected crowd of 100,000 at Twickenham this weekend will be in a party mood for the London Sevens, the final leg of the World Sevens Series, for the players involved it's as serious as the Premiership semi-final between Harlequins and Northampton 'across the road' at the Stoop.
When it comes to being taken seriously by the rugby public, it may not help the shorter format that leading tournaments such as the Hong Kong Sevens are synonymous with beery bonhomie.
Yet all those involved are in no doubt the standard of international sevens is better now than it's ever been.
However, the players are arguably less well-known than ever with increasing specialisation, as in men's tennis where doubles events no long feature top singles players, leading to anonymity.
When England defeated Australia to win the 1993 World Sevens at Murrayfield, the team featured Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson who, a decade later, would be members of the side that beat the Wallabies in the 15-a-side World Cup final.
That's unlikely to ever happen again according to former England outside-half Rob Andrew, now the Rugby Football Union's professional rugby director.
“The change had been massive,” Andrew, whose playing career started in the amateur era, told AFP. “One of the big changes we've had at the RFU is that we are contracting players for sevens now.
“The World Series is going to 10 tournaments next year plus the Sevens World Cup in Moscow in June, the guys are always playing sevens.
“In days gone by, players were swapping between 15-a-side and seven-a-side,” added Andrew, who said such a situation would be all but impossible under the regime of England sevens coach Ben Ryan.
“You look at Ben's programme now, in terms of competition, training and travelling, it's virtually impossible to 'share' a player with a Premiership team and the England sevens squad.”
“We want to be playing to win the World Series,” said Andrew with England third, behind leaders New Zealand and second-placed Fiji heading into the climax of the 2012 edition.
“Sharing, you can't compete with New Zealand and Fiji.”
Ryan added: “I felt like I was an invitational coach. Now it's totally different. The players I want are available for what is a global season.
“You can only do that if you have got your own (players) and are growing your own. The guys you'll see contracted this year and next year, you'd struggle to find on Google but they will end up being world-class operators.”
However, veteran New Zealand Sevens coach Gordon Tietjens said his side, 11 points clear at the top of the World Series table and on the cusp of another title to set alongside the All Blacks' World Cup win in the 15-a-side game, still saw sevens as a 'feeder' mechanism for full Test honours.
“The priority for us is we want them to be All Blacks, to be the best rugby player they can be, and if that means starting in the sevens team so be it, but there will be a nucleus of players that will be full-time playing sevens only.”
And for the stars of the sevens game there is a prize beyond the reach of all other rugby players – competing at an Olympic Games.
Sevens will make its Olympic debut at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
It's hard to tell who is the more excited – players contemplating the prospect of winning a medal or administrators envisaging a new worldwide audience beyond rugby's heartland nations.
And if any of Ryan's players come away with a gold medal, they should be an awful lot easier to locate on Google. – Sapa-AFP