It is an unfortunate situation that the League World Sevens faced last year. The Sydney media in their promotion of the game chose to focus almost entirely on the lack of star power in many of the sevens teams, led by the outspoken Steve Folkes, who named a less than premier league strength side for the competition, while several other sides withheld their stars. By kickoff first day, only Parramatta, Wests and the Warriors had named full strength lineups, while most teams mixed a handful of first graders with their lower grade players. This almost single handedly led to the reduced attendance of the sevens in 2004, with 10,000 less fans walking through the gates this year compared to last.
For those that did attend, they saw a fantastic festival of rugby league. Two days of rugby league played at its fastest and most entertaining. While the sevens may lack relevance to many first grade NRL sides (and consequently, their fans), for the international sides, the sevens is the life of their success. It may seem hard to believe, but seeing the French, Tongan and Russian side?s reactions to their victories, you can easily see just how important the sevens are to these minnows.
Samoan rugby league was single handedly resurrected by the sevens in 2003, with a local club competition developing after their performance. Russian rugby league was to receive a grant from the government based on their performances in the sevens, while their seemingly meaningless victory in the 3rd place playoff of the international cup was celebrated like a finals win. Tongan and PNG rugby league will receive massive boosts from their performances against NRL clubs, while several players from these sides were scouted by NRL clubs, a huge boost for the game back in their homelands. Seeing talented PNG back Ricky Sibia in the NRL one day would be a huge win for the sevens and international rugby league, and it could happen as several clubs have taken interest in one of the tournaments top point scorers and most electric players.
Then there is the fan interest. Where else will these international sides get the crowd support and media coverage they need than the seven a side game? The fans loved the performances of the Russian side, and the Tongan?s lap of honour and war dance after their narrow defeat at the hands of Manly was greeted with great appreciation by the crowds, while the Fijian and French sides were also welcomed. PNG were excitement machines, scoring some breathtaking tries, while Fiji and Tonga showed off the brute strength and powerful running that has made players like Noa Nadruku and Lote Tuqiri famous.
All this in addition to the NRL clubs draw, where Cronulla dominated the first day with their speed and agility out wide, while the Dragons shocked everyone with some impressive displays. The finals on day two were just as thrilling, Wests brilliant path to the finals, needing to beat the in form South Sydney by 22 points in their final pool match to progress, and putting on a marvelous display to do just that, then winning a heartstopper right on the death against the Dragons and bashing Parramatta out of the final. Tonga?s brave effort to fall just short against Manly, Parramatta?s climb from the second chance repecharge match to the final with some wonderful wins over Penrith, Papua New Guinea and Manly. It was two days of brilliant footy, fast paced action, breathtaking tries and some wonderful characters on the field.
So while NRL clubs bicker and moan about the 'necessary evil' of the sevens, this is an event critical to rugby league's international development, and unless clubs start to realise that and look outward rather than worry only for their affairs, and support the sevens rather than criticise it, the international game will never develop to the level it could, because the sevens levels the playing field. There are no blowout scores and it shows off the best aspects of rugby league. It is a great advertisement for the game and a great starting point for international sides, not to mention a wonderful spectacle that should not be missed by any league fan. Let's hope we see it return for 2006!
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