OPINION: With an Olympic place secured, is sevens the true future of rugby?

OPINION: With an Olympic place secured, is sevens the true future of rugby?
New Zealand players celebrate winning the 2023 men's Sevens Series title
New Zealand players celebrate winning the 2023 men's Sevens Series title
While the world watches the Rugby World Cup in France with ever wider eyes, there is another version of rugby union gathering fans (and Olympic recognition) in the background - rugby sevens.

For the uninitiated, rugby sevens (from hereon 'sevens') is a variant of rugby played with seven players on each side, as opposed to the regular 15, on the same field but in a much shorter time span and with a few differences in the rules.

It’s fast-paced, a little chaotic and, because of the increased space for players, there are plenty of tries.

World Rugby’s Sevens Series is the top level of the sport. For over two decades, it has been the predominant iteration of international men’s sevens - the women’s series has run for half that time.

In short, the series consists of the best nations playing in usually about 10 mini-tournaments (each two to three days long) at various venues around the world from November through to May. The circuit structure is changing from this coming season onwards but more on that below.

You can think of the Sevens Series almost as a travelling circus of rugby where the games come and go just as quickly as the on-field action moves and the tournament experience is geared towards a festival-like atmosphere for fans.

One of the great advantages of sevens is that it provides a less technically complex version of what is objectively a very technical sport. Classic rugby union has many opaque and evolving laws and it can be difficult for new audiences to engage with it, let alone play it properly.

Sevens is a more pick-up-and-play version of rugby and crucially, it has already gained Olympic entry - entering the Olympic program in 2016 - something rugby union has failed to do since it was last seen in the Games in 1924. 

This is a massive boon for the sports’ visibility and global awareness and it has prompted many to wonder - including myself - whether perhaps sevens is the true future of rugby...

Another reason sevens has succeeded where 15-a-side rugby hasn’t with its Olympic bid is because the gap between the best nations and the rest is considerably narrower. 

Whereas in rugby, only a handful of nations can realistically compete at the very top level, sevens provides a slightly more even playing field despite being statistically dominated by New Zealand in terms of championships - they have won 14 of 24 men’s World Series titles and seven of 10 women's titles to date.

Lesser rugby countries like the USA, Canada, Kenya, Uruguay and Spain have been able to mix it with the traditional rugby powerhouses of New Zealand, South Africa and Co. Other smaller nations like Samoa and Fiji have been more successful in sevens than in 15s. This is especially true of Fiji, who have registered the equal second-most men’s World Series championships (four) and won the only two men’s Olympic golds.

A major disadvantage of sevens is that will forever be the younger brother or side-kick to rugby union. The best players don’t tend to play sevens and if they do, they don’t typically stay in sevens, often prioritising professional opportunities in 15s. 

The emergence of specialist sevens players is equally due to the fact that sevens requires unique skills. There is not the same need for a heavy forward pack, for example, as there aren’t eight-man scrums but rather mini three-man scums. The game is mostly based on running with the ball in hand and less on set-piece play, which is why certain players (typically backs and loose forwards) find success in sevens.

The Curious Case of Caleb Clarke

Many players have made a name for themselves in sevens and then traversed to 15s (and vice versa) and a good example of that is All Blacks winger Caleb Clarke (24), who is currently at the Rugby World Cup.

His dream of playing sevens at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021) led him to switch from 15s back over to the sevens program in New Zealand in the lead-up to the Games and forego some franchise and international 15s opportunities as a result.

Clarke was later not selected in the 12-man squad for the Olympics (but picked as a travelling reserve) as they prioritised players who had been more heavily involved. Returning to the All Blacks fold in 2022, he has never fully regained his place in the starting side since his breakout season and very nearly missed out on the current World Cup squad.

This is just one example of the sevens conundrum in the top rugby-playing nations. Going over to sevens can mean missing out on 15s and vice versa. If you’re a player like Clarke, on the fringe of both teams, you can miss out on two opportunities by not fully prioritising either.

It’s a shame that the best 15’s players aren’t more involved in sevens but then again, as mentioned, sevens has different skills and, over time, it has evolved into its own sport with its own stars.

Sevens holds a sacred place in Fiji - a true gold mine of talent - but it will likely never be the predominant version of rugby played in the British Isles, France, South Africa or New Zealand - the places where rugby is the most professionalised at present and the sport's key markets.

For the above reasons, sevens can’t really be said to be the future of rugby but it remains an excellent proselytising tool for the sport to gather new fans around the world and to give exposure to players, especially from the lesser rugby nations, where professional and international opportunities are extremely limited.

It’s not ‘Sevens’ - it’s ‘SVNS’!

Sevens has recently reinvented itself or rather, it has undergone a considerable makeover!

The Sevens Series is no longer branded as ‘Sevens’ but ‘SVNS’ (or, more accurately, the ‘HSBC SVNS’ for marketing reasons) and the circuit structure has changed from the 2023/24 season onwards.

The new circuit is slightly more compact with fewer sides in the top-tier competition (just 12) and only eight legs on the tour.

Organisers have added a season final as well, which didn’t previously exist, and it’s all been wrapped up in a funky new brand identity. Crucially, the men’s and women’s circuits - which were previously partly out of sync - are now aligned to promote gender parity.  

The coming season will see tournaments held in Dubai (December), Cape Town (December), Perth (January), Los Angeles (February), Vancouver (March), Hong Kong (April), and Singapore (May), with the final in Madrid (May/June). 

The top 12 nations will compete in all of the first seven events with only the top eight then continuing to Madrid for the season finale. The bottom four sides progress to a promotion-relegation competition with the best of the second-tier sides to determine the next season’s 12 participants.

Clearly, World Rugby is working hard on making the product more appealing both for established and new audiences, particularly younger ones and women. What’s more, there is a deliberate attempt to target new markets. Of the above cities, Hong Kong has a long tradition of holding sevens events and Cape Town lies in a rugby stronghold but the other locations prove they are going on the hunt for new fans.

But just as World Rugby is giving sevens a funky face-lift, they are also exposing their hand as to how they view the role of sevens in the greater rugby ecosystem. 

SVNS is not a super serious thing - it’s supposed to be fun and sexy and ooze a festival charm. It’s about merging sports and event marketing, blurring the lines between being a fan and being at a party, and reaching new and younger audiences along the way. All of that is really cool but it’s not the main event.

For rugby’s governing body, the main event remains the Rugby World Cup and, for the major unions, the Six Nations, the Rugby Championship, and the top leagues and franchises.

World Rugby, and probably everyone in rugby, wants people to see sevens played at the Olympics and to go to SVNS spectacles in new places and come away from those experiences thinking - I want to get into this rugby thing properly!

That is not the same thing as being the strategic future of the sport but regardless, sevens remains a glittering gateway to rugby for many people, which is fantastic.

With continued Olympic involvement, sevens will only grow and grow but it will still grow as a side-project of rugby union, without the biggest stars, television audiences, or funding. However, that’s not to say, sevens won’t get bigger and bolder as it undoubtedly already is.

The most alluring thing about sevens is that it’s becoming a better version of itself. It may not be the true future of rugby but, to frame it another way, one thing is for sure - the future of sevens is sevens itself.

Pat Dempsey


France gouvernement

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