The rugby world is excited. After a 92 year absence, the sport has returned to the Olympics in the sevens format and for many of the game’s stakeholders the next week marks one of the biggest moments for the sport since it entered the professional era in 1995.
Along with golf, sevens is one of two sports being reintroduced into the Olympic line up in Rio de Janeiro after a an absence of generations, with the women’s tournament in full flow until the final on Monday evening before the men kick off on Tuesday.
Yet unlike the indifference with which golf’s notable missing stars have greeted the games, the rugby community has embraced what it sees as a pivotal opportunity to plant itself in the imagination of new fans.
Golf icons Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth won’t be in Rio by choice. In contrast, rugby union equivalents Bryan Habana and Quade Cooper and rugby league and former NFL player Jarryd Hayne were turned away by their respective teams South Africa, Australia and Fiji for not making the cut.
For World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) 2009 decision to make sevens an Olympic sport for at least the Rio and Tokyo 2020 games was a “game changer” that has already had a “halo effect” on the rest of rugby, evidenced in participation figures that have doubled to 7.7m in the period since.
The Olympic platform brings with it the chance for rugby to reach audiences beyond its long-established fan-bases in Europe, South Africa and Oceania.
“I think that now we’ll see a lot of countries who are not in that Anglo-Saxon rugby scene, we’ll see other countries looking at rugby,” World Rugby vice-chairman and Argentina rugby icon Agustin Pichot told ESPN last week.
“I have been to Mexico and many countries in Latin America and Asia who can see they have an opportunity.”
Simon Halliday, chairman of the European Rugby Champions Cup, has already noticed the Olympics’ tangible impact on growing the game in emerging nations.
“They have a club system that’s growing and they took a sevens spot from Samoa for the Olympics,” said the former England centre on a roundtable organised by architectural and engineering firm HOK. “That it is incredible. So I look at our tournament and think Spain is a country where we’re going to pay a lot of attention.”
World Rugby is aiming it can leave a lasting impression on host nation Brazil even after the men’s gold medal event brings its stay at the 15,000 capacity Deodoro Stadium to close and has organised the IMPACT Beyond Rio initiative which it says has reached 175,000 players, coaches and officials in the country.
Yet for now it’s down to the teams involved to sell the simplified, streamlined sevens version of the game to an unfamiliar audience.
Fiji, the No1 ranked side in the world, are the favourites in the men’s competition, but New Zealand — who include athletic polymath Sonny Bill Williams in their ranks — Great Britain, and a USA side armed with the so-called fastest man in rugby Carlin Isles are all serious contenders standing in their way.
Perhaps a win for the latter would be the best result for those concerned with the game’s growth. After all, if a country in which the word rugby is still more likely to result in a raised eyebrow than recollections of a famous try can win a gold medal, other nations may just believe they could soon follow suit.
Five players to look out for
Sonny Bill Williams
Williams is one of the few fully formed superstars in his own right at the tournament thanks to a remarkable career that has included titles in rugby union, rugby league and heavyweight boxing.
The South African is lightning fast and kept one of the all time greats Bryan Habana out of the side with a massive 66 tries during the world sevens series — 18 more than the next highest scorer.
Set to join Saracens next year after starring for Fiji in sevens, the 24-year-old possesses the devastating Fijian combination of a fearsome frame and super speed.
Dubbed the fastest man in world rugby and quicker than even Usain Bolt over 40m, Isles was training for the track ahead of the 2012 Olympics. But after missing the cut he took up a brand new sport and looks set to land a starring role at this year's games.
Imhoff is one of the few experienced pros of the full-size game who has successfully managed to transition to sevens since the Rugby World Cup less than a year ago.