OPINION: This afternoon, 35,000 revellers will descend on Westpac Stadium for the Wellington Sevens. Very few of them will be going solely to watch the rugby.
The New Zealand leg of the International Rugby Board Sevens has evolved into much more than a sporting event. It has become a giant fancy dress party that brings colour, excitement and fun to the capital and pumps up to $20 million a year into the local economy.
Unfortunately, the tournament's value is lost on the thousands of people who regard it as a licence to get out of their minds on alcohol. Their attitude and behaviour have not escaped the attention of the IRB.
For the sport's administrators, the rugby, not the partying, is the paramount purpose of the Wellington Sevens. The tournament is part of a premier international series that aims to showcase the trimmed-down version of rugby to the world, not scenes of drunken mayhem.
Thus, when a fan who had downed 24 beers stripped to his underpants, ran on to the field and tackled a Samoan player during that country's game against New Zealand last year, the IRB was understandably not impressed. The pitch invasion was seen by television spectators around the world and undermined the image the board is trying to foster of seven-a-side rugby as a sport worthy of the Olympic status it has now attained.
The IRB sent a warning to the tournament's organisers last year, noting in its written report on the 2012 instalment that it was concerned about people "partying too hard". It did not go as far as suggesting the tournament could be canned, but the fact it felt the need to voice its unhappiness indicates it is keeping as close an eye on what happens in the stands as it is is on what happens on the field.
As a result, the organisers have initiated curbs on drinking for this year's event. These include increased security checks to weed out fans who are already worse for wear when they arrive and banning fans who have left the stadium from re-entering after 6pm.
Wristbands will be issued to people aged over 18, and must be shown to buy alcohol. Those who misbehave will have the bands removed, and if they continue to act up, will be evicted.
It is a sad indictment on New Zealand's drinking culture that such measures are needed. For some reason, too many Kiwis are unable to have a good time unless it involves getting paralytic.
In many other cultures, the lively costumes, music, dancing and rugby at the sevens would be enough to entertain, and consuming alcohol would be incidental to the party.
Of course the sevens should be fun, and having a few beers or wines to help the festivities along does no harm.
However, people who drink to the point where they do not know where they are or what they are doing are never fun to be around.
Those who have tickets to the sevens, and who intend to make that their main goal this weekend, will find a much tougher response than in the past.
They should do themselves a favour and stay at home.
- The Dominion Post