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Impact of Rugby 7s on North America

Canada's Mike Pyke in the Rugby World Cup against Fiji at the Millennium Stadium in 2007. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

What exciting times are emerging in rugby right now – coming off a World Cup year well hosted by New Zealand and as the London Summer Olyumpics approach, the rugby world is looking forward to the appearance of rugby in the Olympics in 2016.

As a Canadian, I’m pleased to see the development of our Senior Men’s team performance at RWC 2011 and the start of our National Women 7s teams in World events this year has been exciting to watch. I’m enthused as well that Sport Canada (Federal Government) has seen fit to continue the successful support of the Vancouver Olympian support ‘Own The Podium” programme (no matter how nationalistic it may have appeared to the rest of the World!). It was great to hear great raves from non-rugby people about our Senior Men’s team’s performance at RWC ’11 – whether for the Beardos or the performance against Tonga.

The abridged game seems so suited to the North American market – huge hits, great individual athleticism on show and the wide open field space provides easy visual access to the audience.

Over the past couple of years, the Vegas 7s tournament has been televised on national networks (originally televised as filler for a delayed sports season, the second year of televising means television media expecting America to latch onto the game!). In fact, to most who know the game development in America could attest to the draw of 7s. Periodic tournament play during the Summer months allows athletes, with moderate rugby skills, to train and perform well, while still getting most of their Summer weekends free, unlike typical 15s league play.

However, as the current President of a mid-sized rugby club here in Toronto, I’m concerned about the impact the Olympic focus will have on this great game.

Will traditional 15s survive in Canada?

The push for Canada to get behind (financially support) 7s would suggest positive omens for Canada’s rugby – our Women are performing extremely well and nowadays, on any given day in any tournament, we could see Canadian Men being very competitive in the tournaments they enter and the Beardos got some great press in Canada and New Zealand.

BUT here are some of the things the typical world rugby fan may not realize…

  • There are some geographic trends that are quite interesting on this side of the Atlantic – rugby is still predominantly played in the Northern states (east and west coasts) and in 2 significant pockets (and another 3-4) in Canada – two very significantly-sized countries (#2 and #4 according to Wikkipedia) and a combined population of under $400 million, 90% of which is American.
  • Because of the predominant northern climate, rugby is mostly played during the Summer months – Pacific coast areas are able to play Winter rugby, since the weather is more typical of that of other rugby nations.
  • Ontario and British Columbia represent the two largest pockets of rugby in Canada – provinces separated by some 3,000 km. Ontario clubs have some near 10,000 of Canada’s total 27,000 players registered and insured in Canada (the equivalent of paying subs – and players must be insured to play rugby). In comparison, there are over 25,000 high school rugby players in Ontario alone. (Seems we can’t find a way to transition this group into club rugby.) This is not a large player pool to share the costs (insurance) of a few very severe rugby accidents from 3-5 years ago.
  • The current focus of 15s is transitioning, at schools and at branch and sub-branch union levels – so a club may now be able to start and play 7s with 12 players – not necessarily a bad thing, until you realize that some of those 15s players may choose to play 7s for several reasons, including reduced demand on valuable weekend/Summer time. In fact, we’re already seeing provincial recognition of the incoming Olympics standard by the change from representative regional 15s sides to 7s at the Ontario Summer Games scheduled for later this year.
  • Fewer players needed to field a team, fewer teams continue to play as we focus more on elite athletes – the trend looks bleak for developing the size of the overall rugby playing pool if playing 7s gains greater importance.

Television and Olympic money, a less demanding tournament style schedule, fewer people to schedule, higher visibility of play, and identification/adulation of athletes all beckon… Are we hearing the bells tolling for rugby continuing to be a sport that has a position for players of every shape, speed, and athletic ability? While I applaud the spectacle and athleticism of 7s, I hope not…


About Chris Rideout

Have played rugby for some 40+ years, with the majority in Canada (Montreal Wanderers, Calgary Hornets, Calgary Saracens, Lethbridge, Kenilworth and currently with Toronto Saracens RFC). Have played to a reasonably competitive level, and have been involved in the coaching and administrative side of rugby since 1987. Am now resigned to playing Vet's rugby badly... Currently am the President of Toronto Saracens RFC (one of the larger inner Toronto clubs, fielding Mens, Womens, Junior Men, Junior Women and Youth/Age grade to Mini teams) as well as co-coach for U16, U18 and U20 club teams and community coach at a local high school. Am also involved in the branch union administration (Toronto Rugby). View all posts by Chris Rideout

1 Comment to Impact of Rugby 7s on North America

  1. Very interesting.

    You didn’t say much about Canada’s admirable performance on the World Sevens Series this season, culminating in a return to the top flight of international sevens – and mostly without Phil Mack.

    Ciaran Hearn, Nathan Hirayama, Sean Duke and co were superb this year. It was a pity there was no Mensa-Coker or Kleeberger. But perhaps that’s the point.

    It will be a real shame if the current 15s renaissance is stymied by player drains caused by the Sevens explosion.

    RWC
    Your boys did themselves and the Canadian rugby brand a great service from their on-field performances and off-field behaviour in New Zealand.

    The beards, gutsy effort and humble but humourous TV appearances went down a treat.

    Despite our proximity and close ties to Tonga, most Kiwis were cheering for Canada in that match – probably our natural affinity for the underdog coming out. The pub I was in went crazy and there wasn’t a Canadian in there!

    It’s highly unlikely that 15s will lose prominence in the 5 Nations countries and the Southern Hemisphere but it definitely will in developing markets (China, India, USA).

    Canada is in a tough spot and unfortunately I think it will get tougher.

    Other prominent small’ish player-number nations (Fiji, Samoa, Tonga) seem to have struck a balance between the versions with players swapping in and out but they all have rugby as their number one sport and they don’t have the geographic challenges or such a large country.

    But it’s going to be interesting for all when IRB events and other big money, short-term tournaments lure players when these clash with established 15-a-side competitions – like it’s going to in New Zealand later this year – http://www.atthesevens.com/2012/05/23/has-dj-forbes-got-a-contract-conflict-with-the-2012-australia-sevens/.

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