In a move that very much backs the IRB's Olympics dream, the development of Sevens in Asia has built up a head of steam in the last year or so. First we had the continuation and development of the annual Asian Women's Sevens Championship earlier this year at the beachside resort of Pattaya.
In a move that very much backs the IRB's Olympics dream, the development of Sevens in Asia has built up a head of steam in the last year or so.
First we had the continuation and development of the annual Asian Women's Sevens Championship earlier this year at the beachside resort of Pattaya.
It is now considered one of the flagship events for Women’s rugby in Asia and its inclusiveness allows developing nations such as Cambodia, Laos and India to join the likes of Thailand and China in competition. But what about the men?
For the majority of the major Asian sides one of their only opportunities on a big pressure cooker stage is at the Hong Kong Sevens.
Perhaps sensibly the IRB has realised that it’s a tough call for the smaller developing nations to use the Hong Kong carnival as a sole litmus test - hence the creation of the Asian Sevens Series.
Asian Sevens Series
This Series kicked off last weekend in China at Shanghai Rugby Club with Korea crowned overall champions. We then see it moving onto the Philippines, Brunei, Borneo, Iran, and and finishing up in Sri Lanka Sevens, at the end of November. Some line-up.
With Olympic inclusion on the cusp it’s a structure and format which has so much potential and from a playing perspective the standards can surely only head north.
The IRB’s objectives with this are clear and cohesive. By opening up a circuit they want to provide all Asian Rugby Union (ARU) members with an opportunity to participate in international Sevens so that it's not just the lucky ones that perennially turn out at the Hong Kong Sevens.
Additionally, instead of wild speculation and guesswork, an actual ranking system will be put in place for Asian Sevens which one would think will add as an incentive in breeding competiveness between the nations. A coup de maître indeed.
Further objectives of the series range from providing a pathway for ARFU members to the IRB World Sevens Series, whilst providing crucial preparation for multi sports events such as East Asian Games (in Hong Kong this December) and the Asian Games (in Guanghzhou November 2010).
Jarad Gallagher is the main man as far at the IRB is concerned, with the organisation’s Regional General Manager in Asia suggesting we could see some genuine immediate gains from Sevens’ newest road show.
“For me in the next six to 12 months I think the Series will have the benefit of providing regular competition which will help our teams to develop. Secondly, the Unions themselves will get more experience in staging a tournament,” said Gallagher.
So was this the case at Shanghai last weekend, with the tournament fronting up to take on the first leg?
From a rugby point of view there was some thrilling games on the first day, none more so then the nailbiting 17-17 draw between the much fancied China and Korea.
The intense competition didn’t die down the following day either with grudge matches aplenty. Chinese Taipei gut wrenchingly lost out to the steadily improving Koreans 12-10, whilst Hong Kong just didn’t have the firepower to dismantle great rivals Japan going down 17-5.
Thailand and Singapore had their moments but ultimately it was Korea who stole the headlines. For a second day running they diffused the threat of Japan’s Tongan born bruisers in the Gold medal match, and ended up with a thumping 42-19 victory.
Forgetting the scoreline in the final for a moment, the general consensus around Zhang yang Lu was that not much separates the top echelon here, which can only be positive thing in propelling standards.
“Competitively, the Series is off to an outstanding start with any of the five teams this weekend that you could say had a real chance to win it, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and of course China at home.
“The Shanghai 7s is a starting point. I am unsure of its potential yet as it is still early days, but it is a success to get it up and running,” said a satisfied Gallagher.
Who else can cause a stir this season? Well the vastly knowledgeable Gallagher warns me that a dark horse to keep tabs on are Malaysia who themselves host the a leg of the series in Kota Kinabalu.
Solid but not spectacular start
As any honest tournament organiser truly knows the first outing for their event is always a sweaty palmed occasion, but it seems the feedback from Shanghai proved promising.
The locals were especially receptive to the fact that two Chinese teams reached the final of the club event with China Agricultural University, an institution infamous for churning out internationals, and the Shanghai Sports University producing a super advert for the game.
“The crowd was really positive as was the make-up of the teams in the 16-team club competition. It was a great experience to see a lot of the western fans come out to watch the international tournament,” added Gallagher.
“The support of the rugby community was quite strong but it is probably fair to say that we still need to work hard to bring the game further into the Chinese community.”
We were even treated to a soupcon of Hong Kong at one stage on the Sunday when an enthusiastic fan entered the field of play in his birthday suit to add to the jovial atmosphere at Shanghai Rugby Club.
Making commercial sense
From a commercial standpoint it’s a circuit that could be a genuinely marketable product in some stunning locations across the region. Bernard Lapasset and the rest of the IRB big wigs are especially keen to unlock the potential Asian Sevens goldmine that has been inert for too long thus far.
The Asian Rugby Sevens Series certainly represents an exciting opportunity for the sport to reach out to new fans in the region.
As well as the potential shown this weekend, the performances of the Asian sides at the World Cup Sevens in Dubai, notably the women with China and Thailand, also showed the success the sport can have in Asia.
Then what about the World Games? Staged in Kaohsiung, 37,000 rocked out to the main stadium whilst the word on the street is that TV viewing figures are growing considerably in the region.
A consistent series will give crowds a chance to get familiar with players and possibly in the long run for stars to be born and cultivated. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see profiles such as the legendary China Zhang Zhiqiang, otherwise known as Johnny Zhang, boosted further outside the cauldron of Hong Kong Sevens?
MVP from Shanghai was Korea’s Kim Won Yong ,who is exactly the type of exciting talent that could be marketable and is a figure that could influence youngsters new to the game in Asia, although Gallagher is hazy of what exactly is in store in the region in the coming years.
“Long term it’s hard to say what the future holds but watch this space. Certainly our goal is that ARFU has another credible tournament in Asia alongside the HSBC Asian Five Nations (15s) that attracts audiences and sponsors and involves and improves all Asian Unions both on and off the pitch.
“Certainly, if rugby gets into the Olympics, there will be an added impetus to this tournament to further grow and develop and eventually provide a rankings system for events like the Olympic and Asian Games and IRB Sevens events like the Hong Kong Sevens.”
The global Sevens epidemic is growing, and although I have harped on about it for about eight months now, it can only be accelerated with positive news from Copenhagen on the October 9.
North America, Europe, and now Asia are putting the building blocks in place with the Sevens juggernaut building tidy momentum. Non-traditional rugby boundaries are being pushed back firmly for the better and how darn exciting is it to think of kids and promising athletes being exposed to Rugby Sevens in the world's largest and most populous continent. Mr Gallagher is right - we should be watching this space.