Olympics / Summer Olympics / Rugby

Rugby chiefs expecting Japan-style boom after Rio Olympic sevens

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont believes the Rio Olympic sevens tournament can be the catalyst for emerging nations to follow Japan’s lead and embrace the sport of rugby.

Rugby makes its return to Olympic competition after a 92-year absence when the women’s competition kicks off at Deodoro Stadium on Saturday, with the faster, more dynamic sevens format replacing the traditional 15-man game.

Japan has been riding a wave of public interest in rugby since the national team won three games at last year’s World Cup in England, and Beaumont believes the excitement generated by the Olympic tournament can provide the spark for other nations to follow suit.

“We are looking to expand the game globally as best we can, and I think you only have to see the interest in rugby now in Japan,” the former England and British Lions captain said on Friday. “There is huge growth on the back of their success in rugby.

“We want to be here in Brazil in 10 years’ time and say, ‘This is a great game, and the 2016 Olympics were the catalyst to establish the game here in this country and indeed as it has done in Japan, on the back of the success that they have had in world events.'”

Japan’s men’s and women’s teams will both compete in Rio, with the women kicking off their campaign Saturday against Canada and Britain before rounding off the group stage against Brazil on Sunday. Japan’s men have been grouped with New Zealand, Britain and Kenya, and begin play on Tuesday.

Several nations from outside rugby’s traditional heartlands -— including Colombia, Brazil and Spain -— have qualified for the 12-team tournaments, and World Rugby Vice Chairman Agustin Pichot is keen to take advantage.

“It’s a game-changer,” said the former Argentina captain, who led his country to third place at the 2007 World Cup. “It’s massive. It’s the right moment. I think the Olympic family are looking to engage young fans and rugby is on the same page.

“I think being here now in South America is a great statement. We are speaking in English and sometimes that’s hard because many nations in the world don’t speak English. I think what we will see now is a lot of countries that are not Anglo-Saxon will start to see rugby as a different option.”

Sevens, which uses the same-size pitch as the 15-man game and requires enormous levels of fitness and skill, will have its own ready-made star in Rio in the shape of All Blacks back Sonny Bill Williams.

The 31-year-old, who has won titles in rugby union and rugby league as well as boxing professionally, is one of only a handful of regular 15-a-side players taking part in Rio.

Beaumont, however, is confident that new reputations will be forged over the coming week.

“I think there will be superstars who will emerge out of this competition,” he said. “I think a great many countries actually conducted trials for their 15-a-side players to try to get in the sevens squad, and they didn’t make it.

“We have Sonny Bill. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on Twitter, but I understand he has a phenomenal reach.”

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper revealed that two-thirds of tickets have been sold for the six-day tournament, which was voted onto the Olympic program in 2009 after lobbying by a team including Pichot and former All Black great Jonah Lomu, who died from kidney disease last November at the age of 40.

“Yesterday when I arrived, a lot of emotions came through,” said Pichot. “I was thinking of Jonah first. He was a very close friend of mine and I was thinking that I would have loved to be here with him.

“Rugby is a big family and we fought very hard. We learned the process of the Olympic family. The whole process was really good, meeting IOC members, and you know how tough sometimes that is. It was a great experience.”