Rugby 7s World Cup: Just Another Tournament

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Rugby 7s World Cup: Just Another Tournament
Is the Rugby Sevens World Cup really worth keeping?

The 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup concluded last weekend to a smattering of applause at a nearly empty Olympic Stadium in Moscow.

The tournament, which was long thought to be the last of its kind, was saved by a recent International Rugby Board (IRB) decision to continue the competition indefinitely.

In retaining the tournament and integrating it into the four-year Olympic schedule, the IRB has claimed that it there will now be a major competition every two years. The next Sevens World Cup is scheduled to take place in 2018, two years after rugby makes its debut at the summer games in Rio.

 

One Among Many

Ensuring that such a major tournament exists every few years would seem to be a good idea, assuming that it's filling some kind of void.

However, many in the international rugby community are no doubt asking: What void is this so-called World Cup supposed to fill?

Never in the history of Rugby Sevens has there been a more elaborate international schedule. The IRB's own Sevens World Series was recently expanded from eight tournaments to nine and might very well be broadened to 10, should Argentina receive final approval for their long-planned tour stop.

Underneath this elite series containing the world's top 12 teams exists an enormous network of second-tier tournaments with well-established histories of their own. Dozens of major events from Rome to Vancouver and from Asia to South America provide second-tier international teams with an opportunity to test themselves while they attempt to move up the rugby ladder.

Some countries, like Canada, have even created a standing development squad to take advantage of the competition on offer at tier-two tournaments around the world. 

When the eight-month IRB World Series season winds down, many countries still have to muster the strength to complete in at least one additional major competition annually.

         Year

     Major Sevens Tournament       

         2013        IRB Rugby Sevens World Cup
         2014 Commonwealth Games
         2015 Pan American Games
         2016 Summer Olympic Games
         2017 ???
         2018 IRB Rugby Sevens World Cup
         2018 Commonwealth Games

If the IRB schedule eventually does expand to 10 events as planned, nations like Canada and the United States would be forced to compete in 11 tournaments annually, which would involve enormous amounts of worldwide travel with a relatively limited player pool.

Putting aside the logistical challenges smaller rugby nations might experience with such a schedule, there is still the serious question as to why the "World Cup" of sevens rugby should be seen as a special event at all.

There may have been more players than fans.
 

An Inconvenient Truth

Pictures of the empty arena in Moscow made it clear that the most recent World Cup could not hope to rival the packed stadiums seen on the regular IRB Series. 

IRB CEO Brett Gosper defended the choice of location and the seemingly barren facility in an interview with Andrew Alderson of The New Zealand Herald.

That's the risk you take coming to a new city and playing in a stadium as big as this. We're standing here with a lot of Olympic officials who are positive about the experience. They know we're trying to take the sport into new countries and that it's not an easy thing to fill a stadium in five minutes.

The IRB had many months, not minutes, to try to maximize ticket sales for what it considers to be the sport's premier showcase. That same New Zealand Herald interview quoted Gosper as reporting a daily attendance figure of 20,000 fans. The paper called those claims "ambitious."

To your humble correspondent, such numbers seem laughable, and they can be added to a long list of questionable claims from Gosper.

 

A Very Dim Spotlight

This year's Sevens World Cup offered no great increase in media exposure, as many of the women's matches were not even streamed on the Internet, let alone televised.

In the past, national unions would often make their elite fifteens players available to compete at a Sevens World Cup; however, the gap between sevens and fifteens skills has become so great that this practice is dying out, which has drained the event of much of its star power.

It would even be difficult to argue that the standards of competition are greater at a Sevens World Cup. Indeed, in many cases, they appear to be worse.

 

When Is a Champion Not a Champion?

The 2013 Sevens World Cup invited 24 teams, eight more than would normally appear at a World Series event; however, the additional participants added little to the drama or the action.

On the opening day of competition, 10 tier-two sides took to the pitch against established World Series nations, with the result that the minnows lost each and every match, sometimes by embarrassing margins.

Therefore, far from enhancing the spectacle or competition, the addition of second-tier nations only lessened the burden on teams like the eventual World Cup winners from New Zealand, who advanced out of the pool stages without having to battle a team from the world's top 10.

There is even a question about the legitimacy of the title of world champions that is traditionally bestowed upon the winner of the World Cup.

Surely the top team on the nine-event Sevens World Series is a more credible champion than the winner of a single tournament composed of lesser teams.

Ironically, the strongest argument for the continuation of the IRB's Sevens World Cup may be that it is a rare development opportunity for second-tier countries to test themselves against the world's elite.

The Sevens World Cup is not a bigger spectacle than the average IRB tournament.

The rugby is not of a higher standard. Its winner cannot credibly, on that basis alone, claim the title of world's finest team.

If the only reason for keeping it around is to allow minnow nations a chance to compete against the sport's giants, then it is hardly worthy of the name World Cup, is it?

 

Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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