The women's final at the Sydney Sevens (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images).

When the level playing field is just not big enough

There are more problems than solutions when it comes to the integration of Sevens World Series events, but, as Scotty Stevenson discovered in Sydney, it is clearly the way forward for the sport.

They crushed it in front of their home fans. The Australian women’s sevens side, in a prime afternoon spot, hammered New Zealand 31-0 to become the first women’s team in the history of the series to win their home event. It was more than just a gold medal performance; it was a life-giver to the hopes of all the athletes on the series.

“We don’t want to be the curtain-raiser,” said New Zealand Sevens women’s player of the year Ruby Tui at the Rugby Awards in December. “We want to be the main event.” On Sunday in Sydney, that wish became a reality. The women’s final was played in front of the biggest crowd of the day at Allianz Stadium. Rather cruelly, from the point of view of Tui and her New Zealand team mates, they were reduced to spectators, too. Australia scored five tries to nil and, in the process, set up the tournament as an on-field success for Rugby Australia.

Later that evening, the Australian men followed suit and hammered South Africa. It was a master class from a side that had last won a major World Series title in 2012. For James ‘Chucky’ Stannard, their indomitable veteran playmaker, it was the perfect ending to his last home tournament. No one would have begrudged Chucky that moment. It was just a pity that the crowd – three days in to the event – was not as large as it could have been.

And therein lies the rub. Integrating the men’s and women’s tournaments is a scheduling nightmare. In order to do so over the weekend, the men were asked to play one game each on the Friday, two games each on the Saturday and three games – for those who played through to strata finals – on the Sunday.

The women, for their part, had to play three games on the Friday (a public holiday in Australia) beginning at 10 am, two games on Saturday, beginning at 9am, and then a final game on the Sunday, squeezed into the afternoon programme. As Charlotte Caslick, one of the stars of the winning Australian team, threw down a zinger of a hot take after the final, saying that playing in front of an empty house first thing in the morning is “pretty shit.”

Fair enough, too. Her point is valid but so is the position of the event organisers who are trying hard to fit this particular square peg a round hole. The men’s series has been sold to broadcasters as a standalone product, which means every single game must be played for broadcast. The women’s series has also been sold to broadcasters with the same parameters. There is simply no current solution that can satisfy the television market and the wishes of players. In other words, the level playing field is simply not big enough.

While Caslick rightly speaks on behalf of all the women athletes involved in the series, the schedule was also problematic for the men’s teams, who are patently accustomed to a routine that was thrown out of kilter in Sydney on the weekend. They, too, deserve a format that works in the best interests of their performance. The 1-2-3 schedule also forced them to make changes in approach and mentality, and the Sunday evening denouement was perhaps a few hours beyond the attention span of the paying live audience.

So where to now? One thing is certain: integration of the tournaments looks to be the best way forward for the sport. The women’s series is every bit as exciting as the men’s, and the top athletes are every ounce as skilful and professional. Inarguably, in Australia and in New Zealand the women’s sevens sides are as well-known as their male counterparts. A continuation and advancement of national and global exposure will only enhance the situation.

That is going to require some clever mathematics on cost, but the return must be tallied in value. Women’s sevens offers rugby enormous value, but the integrated format proved once again that doing the right thing comes at a hefty cost. Equality has never come cheaply, but it is always worth it. Rugby Australia’s new boss, Raelene Castle knows that, and she probably could not have hoped for a more perfect on-field start to her tenure at the top of a sport that has fallen well down the pecking order of preferred pastimes.

The Australian women’s sevens side stands at the forefront of rugby’s renewed battle for hearts and minds across the Tasman and they should know that they do not fight alone. Athletes like Caslick have created a global market for their sport based on their professional prowess. What is patently obvious is that they have a growing army of allies within world rugby who do not wish simply to pay lip service to their dreams, but to make their ‘main event’ status a reality.

It will take some time, but all good things do.


This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.


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