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Lions greats back sevens to challenge

By Iain Strachan
New Zealand star Sonny Bill Williams

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As anticipation builds for the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand, former stars Brian O’Driscoll and Jason Robinson believe sevens has the potential to challenge the popularity of the sport’s established showpiece events.

Together with the World Cup, the quadrennial representative tours of the southern hemisphere are arguably the pinnacle of the game, with the three host countries – South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – receiving a travelling Lions party just once every 12 years. 

And while that gilded status is unlikely to be matched in the short term, the impact sevens made upon its Olympic debut in Rio last year means the scaled-down format is well placed to attract new audiences. 

“The Lions is big, Six Nations is big. But the Olympics is the biggest stage in world sport,” former England and Lions back Robinson, speaking on behalf of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, told Omnisport.

“It’s making it more exciting to a younger generation. We’ve got some of the best athletes in world sport.”

Former Ireland great O’Driscoll, a four-time Lion, feels the appeal of sevens lies in its relative simplicity.

“The fifteens game can be pretty intricate and it’s fairly detailed,” he said.

“At times people are scratching their head wondering why a penalty has been given or something was awarded by a referee. There’s been situations where, as a pundit, I’ve been a little bit confused, so I can only imagine what people are like at home. 

“I think it does appeal to the wider audience, maybe not the ‘uber’ rugby fan. But just getting into those new markets – if something is signed up to the Olympics, you’d have to suggest America, China, Russia, Germany, these sort of countries that are big on the Olympics are going to have sit up and take notice of rugby sevens.”

Robinson also expressed tentative support for a potential Lions sevens tour to be explored. 

“If the guys can get some time together, it’d be a great concept,” he said.

“There was a time when it was a stepping stone to fifteens but I think it can be a standalone. We’ve seen [New Zealand star] Sonny Bill Williams and a few of the others try to come to sevens and see the challenges. It’s not as easy as people think. They struggled a bit with the fitness side of it, the intensity of it.”

And while O’Driscoll knows it will take long-term commitment for sevens to catch up, he is confident there will be plenty of room for both formats of the game. 

“The Lions has been around for over 100 years, when you realise how long the success and the excitement that’s generated has taken, you realise sevens is going to take time, but it’s booming and growing exponentially,” he said.

“It has the opportunity to run in parallel with the fifteens game. I don’t think you’re going to see people loving one or the other.”

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