The Wellington Sevens has gone from madcap, boozy sell-out spectacle to one hell of a tough sell, and it’s a bloody tragedy, writes Scotty Stevenson.
It is a Friday in late January in the nation’s capital, the day before the Wellington leg of the Sevens World Series begins. The harbour is green and glassy, the weather gloriously benign, and where once there were 30,000 revellers preparing for New Zealand’s biggest two-day rugby bender, there’s now, well, there’s nobody.
There are no Care Bears or Kermits, no Catwomen or Minions, no Marios, Muppets, Ninja Turtles or Nuns. There are no pubs filled with fans, no colour in the streets. There is no buzz in the bars or hype in the hotels. Someone called time on the greatest party weekend in New Zealand sport, and no-one quite knows why. Worse still, no-one knows how to get it started again.
I first came to the Wellington Sevens in 2007, by which time there were already hordes of hardcore fans who had made this event less a weekend away than a genuine sporting pilgrimage. The Sevens was the hottest ticket in the land, a sell-out extravaganza of fancy dress, booze binging, shagging and shenanigans, with the added bonus of also including two full days of sport. To the uninitiated, it looked like the strangest, craziest, most outrageous weekend you could have with your pants on, or no pants on.
There were six of us on that first trip, all friends then and still, who road-tripped our way from Auckland and dossed on the floor of our mate’s flat for the weekend. We drank too much, spent too much, saw too much, ate a bunch of crappy food, and departed broke, broken and hellbent on coming back the next year. I did, and have done ever since, albeit as a broadcaster rather than as a paying fan. This will be my ninth tournament and I still love this weekend.
There was always much to love. For starters – and this may surprise you – the overwhelming majority of people who descended on the windy city for the weekend didn’t behave like complete cocks. Don’t get me wrong; whenever 35,000 people decide to have a party there’s going to be a percentage who – if I can draw inspiration from the week’s best sporting scandal – screw the pooch, but it never seemed to define the event.
Instead it all felt gloriously liberating, especially when compared to the standard fare of fifteens. Test matches and provincial fixtures were the serious affairs – events for the real rugby fan; a place to abuse the referee, or offer your fellow spectators unsolicited yet incisive witticisms and game strategies, or to tell the people in front of you to sit down. At the sevens you had no idea who the referee was, and it didn’t matter. Most of the time it didn’t matter who was playing either. And – to the fans at least – it really didn’t matter if New Zealand won the damn thing or not. It couldn’t have been more different, and that’s what made it wonderful.
Except, that’s also what made it trivial. The tournament itself struggled for relevance in a national sports media industry that to this day pays little mind to the game. While the ever-expanding universe of Super Rugby and SANZAR gave birth to new stars annually, the sevens players flared for just one brief moment every year and, even then, were outshone by the crowd that turned up to watch them.
But what a crowds they were! Trivial or otherwise, the Wellington Sevens drew fans, They were unshackled and uninhibited, fancy-dressed and up for anything; raucous and raunchy and beer-fuelled and superb. Say what you will about the sport, but I will say this: Wellington boasted the best, most fun, most frottage-filled stadium crowd you could ever hope to stand amongst.
I hope they come back. Because who cares if you don’t even know who’s playing? And who cares if the results are irrelevant? And who cares if you decide to spend more time trying to get laid than you do watching the action? Why should it bother anyone if you want to walk the concourse instead of taking a seat, and what does it matter if you only come for the party? I say good on ya, and you’re welcome to start another one.
Amazingly, just when sevens, by virtue of its inclusion in the Olympic Games this year, starts to be taken seriously as a sport, the very crowd that never took it too seriously has disappeared. Next weekend the series moves to Sydney. Get this: it’s sold out.
Maybe it’s just us. Maybe the thing we Kiwis struggle with is the simplest thing of all: that it’s actually okay to have fun, that we should all have more of it, and by god the Wellington Sevens – in all its childish weirdness – is a great place to have it. And you know what else? Fuck off to anyone who says otherwise.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.