1. PASTURES NEW
After 18 years of New Zealand’s home international sevens tournament being held at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, this year’s competition – the fourth top in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series – moves to Hamilton. And, boy, is there a buzz.
In 2016 the writing was on the wall for Wellington, with crowds numbers – for the event that costed NZ2.5 million (£1.3m) to put on – drastically shrinking. That year New Zealand Rugby registered its first financial deficit from the tournament, despite the capital being the team’s spiritual home.
It is hard to pin down one good reason why the potency of the Wellington Sevens declined – it was not as if the hosts struggled; indeed, they won the competition nine times, the last being in 2016. The general feeling was that everyone locally based had had their fill in the stands.
Wellington mayor Justin Lester noted: “The feedback we’d been getting from the public was that [it] seemed to have lost its allure. Wellingtonians have been voting with their feet in the last few years and we’ve seen the result in dwindling crowd numbers and lower ticket sales. It might be that the best thing is for the event to get a fresh start somewhere else and re-invent itself.”
A change is as good as a break, as they say, and hopes are sky high that this weekend’s inaugural competition at Hamilton’s Waikato Stadium will be a huge success. And the pre-tournament indicators are encouraging.
2. RUGBY-MAD REGION AND SEVENS POPULARITY ON THE RISE
Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth most-populous city – and the biggest in the North Island’s Waikato region – is “rugby mad”, which helps, says New Zealand Rugby operations officer Nigel Cass, who is confident that Hamilton has the ability to restore the event to its former glory.
He predicts the birthplace of the British and Irish Lions’ incumbent head coach, Warren Gatland, will deliver an “exceptional tournament” and adds: “Hamilton and the Waikato region are rugby mad and we’re looking forward to introducing international sevens to the local community and for visiting fans from around New Zealand to experience the heart of rugby in New Zealand.”
Last month the New Zealand Herald picked out rugby sevens for special praise in a report on growth sports in the country. It noted: “The Olympics has been the catalyst for huge growth in the abbreviated version of rugby all over the world. It has been one of the big growth areas in women’s sport due largely to the Olympic push and the success of the Black Ferns.”
The study found that in 2012 “a little over 2,800 kids represented their school playing rugby sevens in 2012 and that total had nearly doubled by 2016”. Many experts believe the move from Wellington to Hamilton will spark even more interest, and cultivate that interest. It should help sevens thrive, and elevate it from the next big thing to the big thing.
3. SELL-OUT CROWD AND PLENTY OF OUTSIDERS
Two-thirds of the tickets for the two-day HSBC New Zealand Sevens in Hamilton were snapped up during pre-sale, so there little wonder that all 23,600 seats for both Saturday and Sunday at the Waikato Stadium have been taken.
More encouraging yet: some 40 per cent of ticket sales have come from outside Hamilton, meaning that the city should benefit greatly from the influx of visitors. It is estimated that the sold-out tournament will generate more than NZ$5m (£2.6m) of outsiders’ money.
The Hamilton tournament has been trumpeted as the “first cashless rugby event in New Zealand”, which is another sign of progression. How does it work? Well attendees will have wristbands loaded with funds by credit card, EFTPOS, or cash before and during the tournament.
4. LOCAL HEROES
While Wellington may be the birthplace for Jonah Lomu, Julian Savea, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and various other former All Blacks, the Waikato region is where a number of New Zealand’s best-ever sevens players entered the world. And a trio of them are playing this weekend. Step forward Tim Mikkelson (the team’s co-captain with Scott Curry), Joe Webber, and Regan Ware.
Mikkelson, 31, has played for the side since 2008, was named World Rugby’s Sevens Player of the Year for the 2012–13 season, and is currently sixth in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series all-time top scorers list, having dotted down 197 tries.
Webber, a 24-year-old centre or winger, is another flier, and has been involved with the sevens side since 2011. (Interesting fact: his sister, Jordon Webber, plays for the women’s national sevens side who won the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Series last year.) And Ware, a year younger than Webber, is a winger who impressed so much in his first year in international sevens, in the 2015–16 campaign, he was nominated for the Rookie of the Year award. He scored 15 times that season, including a sensational last-gasp try to advance New Zealand into the Hong Kong Sevens final.
5. THRILLING YOUNG TALENTS ON SHOW
Three years ago, at the HSBC New Zealand Sevens in Wellington, a teenager called Rieko Ioane was introduced to the international rugby community. And he made some entrance. He scored a brace in the final, which New Zealand won 27-21, and defeated England captain Tom Mitchell marvelled at his talent. “I didn’t realise he was only 17,” he told me afterwards. “He certainly didn’t look that age close up. He is the strongest 17-year old I have ever come across. He is no doubt a talent and one to watch for the future.”
Ioane, still only 20, now has 13 caps for the All Blacks, and has scored 11 tries for them. He is one of the biggest stars on the planet today. It was legendary coach Sir Gordon Tietjens who blooded the winger, and he may a habit of introducing youngsters at the HSBC New Zealand Sevens in his long tenure in charge.
The new coach, Scotsman Clark Laidlaw, has continued that trend, and for Hamilton has selected two 18-year olds who could, if they are fortunate enough, follow a similar trajectory to Ioane. The first is Caleb Clarke, the son of former All Black Eroni Clarke, and the second is Etene Nanai-Seturo.
6. OFF-FIELD ENTERTAINMENT
Arguably the best place to watch the action in the Waikato Stadium will in the HSBC Hot Seat. The pitch-side, six-seater chair, located in the venue’s Green Zone, will be the vantage point for a raft of lucky competition winners, with four sessions a day, running for up to three hours. This is another example of how HSBC, the top-tier sponsors of the series, are enhancing the experience of this unique, and increasingly popular sport, and this extraordinary event in Hamilton.
Not only will there be HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series to devour, there is also plenty of alternative live entertainment, including music concerts and freestyle motocross displays. On top of that there will be dodgem rides, an inflatable safari, free circus rides, food trucks and – of course – craft beer. And, on that last point, there has been an extension to the pre-existing 24-hour liquor ban area to include all of the streets around the Waikato Stadium.
7. HOSTS WITH THE MOST (WINS)
Last but not least is the fact that New Zealand have an incredible record on home soil. The hosts reached 11 of the 18 finals in Wellington, and triumphed in nine of those games. Further, between 2011 and 2016 they won five out of six tournaments.
They are in good shape to succeed in Hamilton, too. Although Laidlaw’s side were bettered by eventual winners Australia at HSBC Sydney Sevens last weekend in the quarter-final, New Zealand are second in the overall standings, only four points behind South Africa. In Cape Town they were victorious, and this weekend their Pool C could have been more difficult – with Scotland, Argentina, and France their opponents – so another quarter-final berth looks likely.
Should New Zealand go all the way, again, it would be a fitting end to what promises to be an extremely successful, and inspirational, inaugural HSBC New Zealand Sevens tournament in Hamilton.