HAWKEYE VIEW: TWO SIDES OF THE LINE

Fri, 20 Feb 2015 09:03
Large fiji celebrate in vegas

EXCLUSIVE: MATT HAWKINS, RUGBY365'S SPECIALIST SEVENS COLUMNIST, TAKES A LOOK BACK AT THE LAST TWO ROUNDS OF THE WORLD SERIES.

The last two Sevens World Series stops have shed some light on both the event stops and the play on the field and that's what we shine the spotlight on.

It's what I like to call the two sides of the white line.

The one side of the white line is everything that the tournament is. The fans, the stadium, the support staff, the city and all the pieces that create a great host tournament.

The other side of the white line is reserved for the players and coaches, but as we have discussed before, this end product is the result of many hours of preparation and that is also considered the other side of the white line.

Both Wellington and Las Vegas had some green lights and some red lights on both sides.  

Overall its starting to show that there is a shift in the popularity of events, but also the effect of that is weighing on teams and World Rugby and will play a major effect on the new series that is supposed to be rolled out at any day now. What we continue to see though that has had the biggest impact on the game is the ability of teams and individual players, being able to reach new heights of performance and talent.

Wellington has always brought such excitement to the circuit; there was electricity in the air that was tangible. A few years back it was common opinion that if all was equal it would beat out Hong Kong for the No.1 tournament on the circuit, but in the past two years it has suffered in the lack of fan participation and is a far cry from the days of old.

In years gone by it was stuff of legend.

The tales of tickets coming online and selling out with in minutes was legendary. The sea of people that filled the yellow stands gave new meaning to a rugby tournament. I remember a time where an accurate description of the Wellington Sevens would have gone something like this: "When we first managed to get our hands on tickets for the Wellington sevens, it was if we had claimed our precious, the ring of power and we were something superhuman now. When arriving at the tournament it was if we were at a concert and people had all come out in dress up and the scene was intoxicating. Everyone was in a frenzy of excitement that was uncontrollable, in one corner it was the Obama look-a-likes chanting USA, USA and in the other it was the blue people of Pandora and so it went on. Then all of a sudden in amongst all of this truly epic entertainment, there was a game of Sevens!!"

This sadly has disappeared and the image on our TV screens for viewers at home was filled with a shocking sea of yellow. These were the seats in the empty stadium staring right back at us.

Lets hope that moving forward the tournament can claim back that glory and let us not ever see the amount of yellow we saw this past weekend in the stands again.

Las Vegas on the other hand has started to grip hold of its fan base and has slowly year after year built on it and again this year saw record crowds for the tournament and it was evident as the crowd was in full spirit. Las Vegas as a venue poses many barriers, but each year the tournament has taken the challenge on and bit by bit it has slowly ticked the boxes and achieved a greater efficiency, but it has also laid out a greater fan experience in all that happens, from the start of the parade that takes place in the "Old School" part of Vegas, along Fremont Street.

A major part of this tournament and the hosting of it is the Las Vegas Invitational that happens in the days building up to the main event, but also hosts a majority of the finals during the main event on the main field, which has had a phenomenal effect on the team and player participation.

The tournament hosts teams from around the globe but definitely has a focus on providing a platform that provides opportunity for the USA teams in particular to come and play and view the main event. It hosts both male and female events. Its age brackets range from 16 years  all the way to 70 in the old boys games and has multiple layers of participation, from National teams, to Elite club teams, to the social teams looking to get more out of their trip to Las Vegas.

When we take a look at the rugby, WOW!!!

In both cases Wellington and Las Vegas outshone the previous three events.

It was a spectator's delight.  

In Wellington, Kenya and Scotland outdid themselves over the weekend and put together some solid rugby. South Africa struggled through each game and never really found their rhythm. The home team, however, found the winning recipe and they powered through each opponent.  The top eight and the eventual top four had a different look about it with both England and Scotland sneaking through and finding the ability to close out games and making the Top Four.

In Las Vegas, well there were two massive influencers that took hold on the field.

The first was the width of the field. Sam Boyd Stadium is in fact and artificial turf football field, it undergoes a massive facelift to what we see over the three tournament days, which has a grass field playing surface, which due to the way it is stitched together, has no real anchoring on the base and needs to be watered constantly over a few weeks so that it knits together, but this had a major effect on the players ability to cut and breakdown and stop dead in their tracks and what we saw resembled a slip and slide. The second is due to the fact that this stadium was built for another use, the width of the field is significantly reduced from that of regular sized rugby fields. A regular size rugby field normally sits at 70 metres. The Las Vegas field is roughly 60 metres in width. This affects some teams, but plays in to the hands of others.

Another factor that we have discussed previously is the format of the tournament. The standard format has the tournament running over two days with pool play on the first, which consists of three games and then knockout on the second day, with some teams playing two or three games depending on how far they progress.

The Las Vegas tournament takes on a very different format. It runs over three days and you play two of your pool games on the first day, then it's the last of the pool games on the morning of the second day and then you play the first round of knock outs following that. The third day then has the semi finals of the different divisions of the Cup, Plate, Bowl and Shield competitions and their Finals.

With every day, comes a new opportunity to rest, recover and evaluate. For some teams that is needed and for others it breaks up a rhythm they have started to build up through the day.

This was very evident in the play of Las Vegas Champions, Fiji. They had got through Day one and Day two, but you would never have said that they set themselves apart. On Day three though, they arrived with new intent. The motivation and ruthlessness that drove them was evident from the first Kick off against South Africa in their Semi Final match. This carried over to the Final against New Zealand.

I honestly do believe no matter who stood opposite the Fiji team on that day stood a chance. What ever they had learnt over the two days prior and whatever was expressed to them in emotion and strategy from coach, captain and management really sunk in and they were one word - DOMINANT.

As it stands, South Africa is still holding on to the top spot, but New Zealand with their victory in Wellington have leap-frogged Fiji and are sitting in second place. Fiji is still holding on strong at number 3. Australia on the other hand is slipping. Although they are in fourth, they are 15 points behind Fiji and with 7 points separating a first place finish (22 points) and a forth place finish (15 points), the peloton is starting to slowly break up, with the lead group working off each other and finding some breathing room at the top.

An old saying that I was continually told coming up through school was: "Its tough at the top, but crowded at the bottom."

As we've discussed regardless of whom you ask and what the answer is, every team has a definite need to win on the Sevens World Series, but everyone wants an automatic qualification spot and a ticket to the Olympics.

By Matt Hawkins
@polarbearkzn
@rugby365com

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