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I’ve had too many discussions with rugby people I respect to not write this column. Most recently, I’ve debated the merits of really focusing on 7s with coaches from a few of the country’s top college programs, and I’ve walked away with the same sense – that there remains neither enough respect for nor emphasis on the game of 7s. I even had the coach of a program that's seen its best recent successes come in 7s and produced multiple 7s Eagles tell me, in explaining a poor showing at a tournament this fall, that his is a 15s program that plays some 7s. I was gobsmacked.
For the first time ever, a 15s match on American soil was broadcast live on network television last week, when the All Blacks schooled the Eagles in front of a national audience on NBC. USA Sevens and the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship have been broadcast live on NBC several years running.
The All Blacks defeat of the United States drew an overnight rating of .68 (ironic, considering the winning margin), which is lower than that of USA Sevens and the CRC. Even the biggest rugby brand in the world couldn't glue more eyeballs to American television sets than collegiate 7s.
61,500 seats were filled for the historic All Blacks test. The overall attendance for USA Sevens eclipsed that in both 2013 and 2014. Granted, the Las Vegas event spans three days, but over 30,000 have shown up for Saturday alone the last three years, dwarfing the attendance record for a 15s test match in America prior to the Soldier Field sellout.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to remind you I'm paid by the people who have invested a lot of time and money in the game of 7s and own and operate the aforementioned 7s events. I am also an avid rugby fan, administrator and coach, as well as an immobile ex-prop. I love the intricacies of the 15-man game. I fully appreciate its nuances, and I, like many of you, romanticize the dark arts of the scrum. I also, however, have an unrequited love affair with 7s. I say unrequited because I'm about as fit for the game of 7s as Dennis Rodman is for the role of international diplomat.
If there's no space in your heart for the truncated game, but you want the rest of America to share in your love of rugby, I can work with that. The attendance and ratings numbers should be enough to show you that when it comes to penetrating the greater American sporting conscious, 7s is well ahead of 15s. It's inarguable – more Americans have seen 7s on broadcast television than 15s, and more people have paid to watch 7s in America the last several years than have paid to watch 15s.
If that didn't do it for you, maybe the score lines will. The Eagles lost by 68 to the All Blacks in 15s. The United States came within a toad's hair of beating New Zealand in the 2013 7s World Cup. The 7s Eagles have beaten England, South Africa and Australia multiple times. The 15s team? Not so much. The 15s Eagles are ranked 18th in the world. The 7s Eagles finished the 2013/2014 World Series 13th, and they're currently in ninth place.
In interviews following the All Blacks game, American players, almost to a man, talked about how the Eagles need more time together and more professionals – whether that meant a pro league Stateside or more Americans playing overseas. In 7s, the Eagles have as much assembly time as they could ever want with the residency program in Chula Vista, Calif., and they have 15 professional contracts. The two biggest barriers to competitiveness highlighted by America’s 15s Eagles have already been taken out of the equation for the 7s national team.
If the United States is going to compete for a world championship in rugby, it will be in 7s long before 15s. But that doesn't mean winning in 7s has to come at the cost of 15s. 7s is as good a developmental tool for 15s as there is. Don't believe me, ask the All Blacks. Julian Savea, Charles Piutau and Cory Jane combined for four tries against the USA at Soldier Field. All of them played 7s for New Zealand before cracking the 15s National Team. Liam Messam is another great example, and perhaps the greatest is Jonah Lomu. Both were 7s internationals first and All Blacks second. In the United States, the 7s-to-15s pipeline is even more prevalent. Chris Wyles, Todd Clever, Taku Ngwenya, Blaine Scully, Brett Thompson, and Thretton Palamo were all 7s Eagles, and the examples don't stop there.
If you're a college rugby player or coach who couldn't care less about the Eagles or rugby breaking into the mainstream in America, but you want to wave to your friends and family on national television, sharpen your 7s skills. Exactly two domestic teams, college or club, played live on TV last season, the two that made it to the Varsity Cup final on NBC Sports Network. As many as 20 get on NBC proper via the CRC every year.
Whether your question is how can the Eagles become a world power, how can we inspire America to fall in love with rugby, how can you make your 15s team better, how do you get your college club on television, or how can you become a professional rugby player, the answer is the same: 7s. That's 1,000 words on why you should care a lot more about 7s, and I didn't mention the Olympics once.