At the Netherlands Rugby Union the women’s Sevens team (left) is already seen as priority number one (photo courtesy IRB).

International Rugby Board
March 30, 2011

by Tim Maitland

Olympic status for Sevens is changing rugby exponentially away from the sport’s heartlands. In part 1 of this series Tim Maitland looked at how 95% of the benefit of being in the Games from 2016 isn’t the money that comes from the IOC, but the investment from individual nations into their sport. In part 2 he examines two relatively unheralded areas – the women’s game and regional Olympiads – and how they are driving some of the biggest changes.

As we build towards 2016, National Olympic Committees will have to justify to their governments more than ever before the investment of public funds in sport. Quite simply, that means Olympic medals and that hard fact is going to drive the biggest “hidden” benefit for rugby: growth in the female side of the game.

Nowhere is this more apparent perhaps than in Asia, where the rise of Sevens has encouraged thousands of women to take up Rugby. An astonishing 30% of rugby participants in Hong Kong and Singapore are now female, and women’s rugby is on a massive growth curve in China, where the NOC has smelt the potential for a fast return.

“The biggest opportunity is in women’s rugby,” declares Mark Egan, Head of Performance and Development at the International Rugby Board. “The thing about the women’s game is it is less developed compared to the men’s and potentially there are “soft” medal targets there for some National Olympic Committees.

“If we’re going to grow our numbers, and the IRB has the strategic target of moving from 3.5 to 4.0 million registered players up to 6 million by 2020, one of the greatest growth opportunities is in women’s rugby. I think it’s going to be the biggest growth area for us.”

Sevens Samba

If you’re not convinced, take Brazil as a case study. The Comitê Olímpico Brasileiro is already putting money into Sevens, giving their women’s team an extra £150,000 for this year in the hope of developing the team because it could have to qualify for the 2016 Games. Where that investment is critical is that it allows a team – a winner of all six South American Women’s Sevens Championships and the 2010 South American Games, unbeaten and grossing 1,127 points for and just 46 against in claiming those titles, since 2005 – to spread its wings in search of tougher opposition, which they found in last December’s women’s invitational tournament at the Dubai Sevens.

“In South America, it’s not that it’s easy, but we’ve never lost a game. This is real rugby; the speed and the contact. For us, we have to get out of South America and prove that we can really play. We got to Dubai and we would never have thought we could play in Dubai in an international tournament,” said Julia Sarda, a 28-year-old from Florianopolis, the capital of Santa Catarina State in southern Brazil, who was part of the team that played in the desert.

“We have to get out of South America to improve. We feel like we are athletes now; before, we were just players. It’s improving; a lot of people in Brazil now know about rugby. A lot of people are watching us now, not just our families. It’s changing, but I believe it will change even more. There will be some live TV from the next South American games in February in Brazil. In Brazil now, Rugby Sevens is a girls’ game. We’ve had more results than the guys,” she adds.

The Netherlands are another case in point. Only recently in Las Vegas, the unheralded Dutch women’s national side lost just 17-12 in the Cup final against celebrated Canada.
“Women’s rugby is basically now priority number one. We have 17 girls – 12 elite and five development – working three or four times a week at the moment and in September hopefully going full time,” said coach, Gareth Gilbert.

“We’ve started a Sevens project where we’re aiming for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Fortunately we’ve got a lot of backing from companies who are supporting us financially, and also from the Olympic Committee and our union.”

And of course no discourse on women’s Sevens would be complete without acknowledging the achievements of Australia’s own Wallaroos. They memorably struck gold at the first Rugby World Cup Sevens for women in 2009 with a patchwork quilt of a side made up of fine sportswomen from various different codes, all drawn to the excitement and Olympic allure of Sevens.

The Trickle-Down Effect

Probably the most underestimated arena for the growth of any sport trying to expand beyond its traditional boundaries are the multi-sport regional games around the world, for the simple reason that they provide an achievable level of easily recognisable success for an emerging nation.

It is probably not a coincidence that, following hot on the heels of gaining Olympic recognition, Sevens should have made two significant additions to its portfolio this year. Already a feature of the Asian Games, SEA (Southeast Asian) Games and Commonwealth Games, among others, it will be making its debut with a men-only tournament at the Pan American Games in the Tlaquepaque Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico in October. The sport is also thought to be scheduled to make a bow in the All-Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique in September, although it is not clear whether this will be as an exhibition sport or in full medal capacity.

Mexico provides an interesting study of the kind of chain reaction that inclusion in one of the regional games sets off. Recognising the importance of them having more than just a token presence in the Sevens as Pan American Games hosts, the IRB stepped in to fast-track development work, aiding a restructuring of the Federacion Mexicana de Rugby and making them a full member of the IRB. Seeing the IRB investing and recognizing that a bronze medal might be achievable, the Comité Olimpico Mexicano provided funds and gave access to the Olympic training centre. Because of the investment from the NOC and the added profile that both Olympic and Pan Am games status brings, the team has increased its sponsorship income. But, as Egan explains, that is just the tip of a very large iceberg that reaches deep into the waters of the country’s sports culture.

“The big thing is the Mexicans have their national school Olympics; they call it the National Youth Olympics, and rugby is now included in that,” Egan says.

“It’s the same in Brazil. That opens up not just central government money, but regional and local government money and the regional education authorities will follow what the regional governments are telling them. It’s endless, all the different stages and opportunities to get funding purely from being an Olympic sport.”