Rugby's Year Once Again: Are There Any Shocks in Sight for 2011?

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Rugby's Year Once Again: Are There Any Shocks in Sight for 2011?
Simon Watts/Getty Images

My my, how fast time flies. We are now in the second month of a very important year for everyone who loves the game, no matter which side of the world you root for.

European rugby has been on for a couple of months, and the IRB Sevens Circuit is making its third stop this weekend in sunny and exciting Las Vegas. Things are certainly moving along, as Super Rugby makes its debut in the southern hemisphere to lead nicely into the 2011 World Cup.

So then, the question here is, will there be any surprises this year with all that is going on? Will we see the All Blacks finally become World Champions at both the Fifteens and Sevens forms of the game, with home town support finally curing them of the dreaded "choke" syndrome?

That would be a shock for some people for sure, but really, has the professional game made rugby a little more predictable?

The challenge for any marketing person is to make a product new and attractive year on year to get both the old and new fans on the bandwagon; conversion and retention is the official working word here I gather.

Rugby is no different, and we see that 2011 is the year for renewal and change. A new sponsor for the Sevens series, a repackaged Super 15 competition, and even a modified pool structure at this year's World Cup.

I for one am looking forward to this season, as it celebrates the 16th year since the game went fully professional, and we see the game really coming of age.

After all, 16 is the age where in some parts of the world one can now drive a motor vehicle, so it is a perfect time for the sport and all those involved from the grassroots up to make the game stand out in this era where almost anything can be a professional sport—even stuffing yourself with as many hot dogs that make you feel sick.

On the Sevens stage, more countries are now embracing and funding the Olympic sport, if wider media is to be believed. The fact is that while many countries—Australia, New Zealand and America included now have the support of their individual Olympic councils—the funding is still hard to come by for things like warm-up tours and player payments to make the sport really professional.

That is the way to go really for Sevens, just like how the Fifteens game has improved as more players see a full-time career in the sport and spend more time developing physically and skill-wise, more so for the Olympic sport of Sevens.

Unfortunately, even the likes of the USA Sevens team has found it hard to get funding to warm up properly for the IRB Circuit, having to pull out of the Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens in November at the last moment due to a lack of funding last year.

The Singapore Sevens is where the South African team has gone to for the last three years to prepare, seeing the tournament as a great warm-up just two weeks before the circuit kicks off.

Russia was a surprise at the Hong Kong Sevens last year, and it would be interesting to see who delivers the same standing ovation that the Russians had from the South Stand this year.

New Zealand and England have had great tournaments so far, sharing the spoils, but it would be interesting to see if the likes of South Africa or Fiji can come to the party with a tournament win in Las Vegas.

So at least for Sevens, I do not see any shocks coming the way in terms of tournament wins, but we will certainly see a few surprise games as Sevens always does provide that unpredictability.

Stay tuned for the take on how the 2011 Rugby World Cup will pan out, after some games of the Six Nations, and of course the "new" super rugby!

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