Olympics here we come?
March 8, 2009
Wales' men and Australia's women celebrate their victories at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai © Getty Images
Aside from a little sunburn and maybe a slight hangover, International Rugby Board chairman Bernard Lapasset will be a very happy man this morning.
As the driving force behind the bid to see the shortened version of the game introduced to the Olympics programme, he can rest assured that the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai did nothing but enhance the sport's chance of getting the nod from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Rugby's Olympic ties date back to 1900 when the 15-a-side version of the game was introduced but it has not featured since 1924. However, the IRB have more recently renewed their claims to re-join the Olympic line-up as they strive to develop the game around the world. The sport's governing body believe that rugby's long-standing ethos of fair play and friendship is a perfect match for the Olympic ideals.
Rugby's case for inclusion in the 2016 summer Games was already gathering momentum before the sport's elite gathered under the blazing sun in Dubai but after a dazzling show of strength they are surely well-placed to see off their rivals - golf, baseball, softball, squash, karate and roller sports.
The fifth Rugby World Cup Sevens was always going to be pivotal to the IRB's campaign for Olympic status that they insist will unlock priceless funding for nations outside the top tier. Of equal importance was the success of the first women's World Cup competition that ran alongside the men's event.
Lapasset rolled out the welcome mat to the IOC observers on the eve of the tournament and as part of the promotional push and also called two on giants of the game - Lawrence Dallaglio and Jonah Lomu - who both lit up the Sevens stage during their illustrious careers.
Any fears the action would subsequently fail to live up to the billing were unfounded. Both competitions delivered in terms of excitement, skill and drama in a truly global festival of rugby that ended with Wales claiming a shock victory in the men's competition and Australia notching an equally impressive and surprising success in the women's event.
The three-day spectacular featured 24 teams in the men's competition and 16 in the women's and a similar plan will utilise the main Olympic stadium between the opening ceremony and the start of the athletics when it would otherwise lie idle.
The event itself made a slow start with eventual Melrose Cup champions Wales getting the action underway on 'Pitch 2' outside the main stadium which underlined their status coming into the tournament. Rows of empty seats welcomed the early games in the main stadium but thankfully the cheerleaders had them pouring into the stadium in time for the entry of the big guns - England, New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa.
The action went according to the formbook for the first two days with all the major nations booking their places in the last eight as pool winners while Kenya and Wales progressed as the best placed runners-up. A 14-0 defeat to pool rivals Argentina looked to have de-railed Wales' campaign but they would exact their revenge.
The third and final day of action would prove to be the most dramatic in Rugby World Cup Sevens history with a succession of upsets to keep every fan lucky enough to be in the stadium on the edge of their seat. Wales set the tone with victory over New Zealand in their quarter-final clash but they had competition for the headlines with Samoa and Argentina sending IRB Sevens pacesetters England and South Africa packing and Kenya beating defending champions Fiji.
The IRB's prayers had been answered. Just when they needed an example of how all-encompassing the Sevens game is and how any number of nations can lay claim to supremacy, the semi-finals served up a representative from four different continents, none of whom had reached such levels of success previously. In the end it was Wales who etched their name into history and onto the Melrose Cup thanks to victory over Samoa in the final four and sweet revenge against Argentina in the energy-sapping finale, eventually triumphing 19-12.
The women's competition provided just as compelling a case for Olympics inclusion with Australia claiming the honours against New Zealand 15-10 in an all-Oceania showdown. The improvement in the standard of play was widely noted and the success of the likes of England, China, Canada and Brazil underlined the truly global nature of the game's appeal.
There is no doubt the Sevens game has come a long way from its origins in Melrose, Scotland, where the first event was held at the famous Greenyards ground in 1883. And we should not forget that the Sevens is part of the very fabric of the sport with tournaments organised by almost every one of the 116 Unions affiliated to the IRB.
The establishment of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1993 was the inevitable consequence of the game's global expansion (the first Rugby World Cup was staged in 1987) , and the IRB Sevens Series, launched in 1999, has since introduced the game into many new territories. In addition the sport is also part of the Commonwealth, Asian and Pan-American Games.
The big decision will be made at the International Olympic Committee session in Copenhagen in October where they can offer a place to a maximum of two sports. The time has now surely come for a return to the Olympics and for the sport to embark on new era.
The role the Rugby World Cup Sevens will play alongside any future Olympic tournament is perhaps a debate for another day as in successive years - as their respective four-year cycles currently suggest - the events would over-shadow each other. Separated by two years you can envisage both thriving side by side.
Looking ahead, should the IOC require yet more evidence of the global power and presence of Sevens then they need only drop in on the latest stop for the IRB Sevens Series later this month in Hong Kong where another feast for the eyes awaits. But something tells me that will not be needed. The IRB must now hope that fate and the political machinations of the IOC smile upon them.