Editorial: Wider reach for rugby
For any New Zealander watching the live footage of the Wellington Sevens at the weekend, it wouldn't have been pleasant viewing.
I say live footage because - without meaning to sound disrespectful - it seems unlikely that anyone in the stadium was focusing too closely on the action on the field. They were too busy partying.
For those who were interested in the tournament unfolding at the Cake Tin, though, it would have been a disappointing experience, as New Zealand ended up bowing out in the semi-final of their home event on the international Sevens calendar.
But that wasn't the worst of it. It was the fact that they lost out, in extra time, having scored the opening two tries of the encounter, to Kenya, of all teams.
The East Africans not only came back to tie matters up with two tries of their own, keeping New Zealand scoreless for the rest of the game in the process, but they then went on to break the deadlock in extra time, winning through on the sudden death rule. It was a second notable scalp in a row for the Kenyans, who had edged out South Africa by a single point in their earlier quarter-final.
The annual event could easily, therefore, have ended up being about those disappointing performances from top nations. But it was in watching the final, in which the Kenyans were desperately unlucky not to edge out England, turning over possession with time up on the clock when they held the lead, that I realised what a great thing their emergence was for Sevens, and rugby in general.
In 1997, I was fortunate enough to be sent to cover the World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong. Based on my experience at that thrilling event, I wrote a piece in which I referred to Sevens as the "missionary arm" of global rugby. In other words, it was the form of the game that could most easily be used to spread the rugby gospel, and bring other countries into the sport's fold.
With participation in the Commonwealth Games and, in 2016, in the Olympics in Rio, Sevens has obviously become a code in its own right, but it struck me on Saturday night how a country like Kenya has now become a legitimate contender in that form of the game. Like Fiji, their team is full of players who combine immense strength with great speed, with English coach Mike Friday clearly helping to lift their technical skills to a high level.
In short, Kenya could go to Rio in 2016 as realistic medal contenders when they've never featured in any notable way in the 15-man code. Perhaps the missionary work of Sevens is proving successful then. That can only be a good thing for our national sport.
- © Fairfax NZ News