What’s the point of Sevens? It should be used to develop Test players, and would be better at it than Super Rugby


I well remember the day a New Zealand Rugby staffer put their hands on me. It seems I’d made them angry.
The Wellington Sevens was dying in a ditch and our governing body wanted a positive spin put on things and for we in the media to write glowing things about our anonymous men’s sevens “stars’’.

I was just there to write about and talk to Sonny Bill Williams, I told him.

“I know Sonny spoke on Tuesday and isn’t scheduled to speak again, but he’s the only person we want to talk to,’’ I said. I copped an open palm to the chest for my troubles, from the media handler.

That Olympic campaign ended in injury for Williams, while Wellington Sevens teammate Ardie Savea never made it to Rio.

Turns out someone had whispered in his ear that his career would be enhanced immeasurably by pulling out of that sevens squad, which he duly did.

Eight years on, there’s any number of established or would-be All Blacks who could benefit from seven-a-side rugby in this Olympic year.

Super Rugby Pacific is neither use nor ornament at the moment, while we negotiate these bye weeks and the Rugby World Cup cycle has a few revolutions to go before we reach some Tests of consequence.

Put simply, the sevens grounding that made elite All Blacks out of players such as Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu would do more to develop guys than Super Rugby is right now.

Take Caleb Clarke, who’s not without experience in sevens rugby. The man’s one discernible trick is to run over people, which isn’t that tricky if they can tackle.

For a guy who grew up playing centre, his passing also isn’t up to much.

Then there’s Rieko Ioane, who did go to Rio with Sonny Bill. Nothing wrong with his evasive skills but, again, here’s a bloke who can’t (or won’t) pass. Sevens would help sort that out.

Rieko Ioane of New Zealand holds off Humphrey Kayange of Kenya during the 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Salesi Rayasi and Kini Naholo are others. Shaun Stevenson too.

Hell, even grafters like Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie and Cullen Grace might develop a bit of dynamism in that environment.

And then there’s Beauden Barrett, a man who’s won most things in the game and played sevens for New Zealand at the outset of his professional career.

Could we not have sold him on the dream of an Olympic gold medal in Paris, instead of another sabbatical in Japan?

I mention this stuff for a couple of reasons. First, sevens was once the means by which we prepared players for All Blacks duty.

We wanted to play a running, passing game in 15-a-side rugby and we honed those skills in sevens.

Yes, the composition of the rugby calendar was different back then. Sevens was pre-season and players got rock-hard fit and developed confidence from being flogged to near death by New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens and Wayne Smith before him.

The other reason why sevens is on my mind is Hong Kong. That’s where legends such as Lomu and Cullen announced themselves to the world, but the 2024 edition of that tournament has come and gone without too many people noticing.

Never mind the rugby, 20 or 30 years ago, the Hong Kong Sevens was the ultimate boys’ trip for Kiwi footy fans and now only a few realise it’s on.

Running a men’s sevens programme isn’t cheap for New Zealand Rugby. I divorce the women’s team from this conversation, because our elite players make a point of prioritising sevens.

But what’s the point of the blokes’ team if it’s not to develop our best players for Test rugby and to showcase our talent to the world?

Your rank and file Olympic viewer sees New Zealand on the sevens schedule and assumes it’s the All Blacks. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

We can’t even hold a tournament in this country, despite our men and women both reigning supreme at Hong Kong, partly because there’s no male players with the profile to attract an audience.

The All Blacks have lacked the forward might to dominate Test rugby in recent years, but we’ve no shortage of athletes that could set the sevens world alight.

Give me Beauden Barrett in a sevens team then. Let’s have Jordie while we’re at it too.

Bring in Clarke, Ioane and whoever else as well. Ahead of the 2016 Games in Brazil, we had any number of good players indicate their interest, including Kieran Read, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith.

And what did we do? We reminded them where their bread was buttered and they quickly pledged their allegiance to 15s.

I’ve no particular interest in men’s sevens anymore, I just remember how many good All Blacks came off that production line.

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