Rugby sevens tipped to change the game

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RIO DE JANEIRO >> It's taken rugby 92 years to get back in the Olympic Games, and yet Argentina great Agustin Pichot called it the right moment.

Pichot, a key member of the team which got rugby sevens approved for Olympics inclusion in 2009 and who has become vice chairman of World Rugby, could barely contain his excitement on Friday, the day before the competition begins.

In terms of modern milestones, he puts rugby's return up there with the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 and the game going professional in 1995, and he predicted big things, especially outside of its Anglo-Saxon strongholds.

"Being here, in a Latin country, in South America (where rugby wasn't very popular), is a great statement," Pichot said. "The challenges are big but change will come.

"We're speaking English here (in the news conference), but many nations do not speak English, and what we will see now, from these games, is a lot of countries that are not Anglo-Saxon are going to start looking at rugby as a different option. I've seen it in Colombia, Mexico, many countries. We have an opportunity to grow rugby really, really big."

Growth has already been massive since the IOC voted 81-8 to approve rugby for the 2016 and 2020 Games. In the seven years since, global participation has doubled to 7.73 million, and the percentage of female players has risen from 10 percent to more than 30, according to World Rugby.

So sure in the product was World Rugby, that chairman Bill Beaumont expects a huge upsurge in interest from the Olympic TV coverage.

"I'm hoping, I'm pretty confident, that clubs will be inundated at the start of next season in Europe, with girls wanting to play rugby. You'll find in schools, there will be a knock on the door of the PE teacher, and saying 'Look, we want to play this game,"' Beaumont said. "This is the biggest kickstart the game's ever had, especially for women and girls, and it's up to clubs, if they are sensible, to realize this is a fantastic opportunity for them to create a new market beyond the traditional Saturday afternoon, 15-a-side rugby club."

Beaumont wasn't fazed by the lack of star power in the lineups. Stars of the 15s game such as Bryan Habana and Quade Cooper, and former NFL running back Jarryd Hayne failed to make their national squads, but Beaumont said new stars will emerge.

World Rugby was also confident of ticking all the boxes needed to stay in the Olympics after 2020, boxes such as attendance, stadium atmosphere, TV ratings, and impact on social media.

The Olympic competition follows the most successful annual rugby sevens world series, which started in 1999. The series drew 715,000 fans over the 10 tournaments, 6,000 hours of action broadcast to more than 100 countries for the first time, 61 million video views, and a 250 percent audience increase across all media platforms.

Two-thirds of tickets for the Olympic sevens have been sold, said Brett Gosper, the World Rugby CEO. He said he was confident there will not be the disappointing gaps in the stadium crowds that have been seen at soccer matches.

He said legacy — what's left behind after the games move on — was important to World Rugby, and he was happy with what has been done in Brazil, where rugby is not that popular, ranking below even skateboarding and table tennis.

Since launching a legacy program in Rio de Janeiro in March 2015, World Rugby says more than 115,000 students are playing regularly in more than 450 schools and 1,450 coaches and teachers have been trained, plus 60 referees.

"We want to expand sensibly, we want it to be sustainable," Beaumont said. "We want to be here in Brazil in 10 years' time and say the 2016 Olympics was a catalyst to establishing the game in this country."

To that end, they have enjoyed working with a significant but unexpected fan, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes.

When Gosper, Bernard Lapasset, the then chairman of World Rugby, and Mark Egan, the head of competitions and performance, met with Paes last year when things were behind schedule, the mayor reassured them.

"He gave us his mobile number for any problems," Gosper said, "and he actually picks up, answers, and gets things done. It's amazing."

Without any major hassles, the 15,000-seat venue at Deodoro was unveiled in March, to acclaim from an impressed World Rugby.

Paes delivered on his promise, and Beaumont said with a smile they will be keeping the mayor's phone number to themselves: "It's not available, by the way."


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