The only time I played rugby sevens on the international stage was in 1997 at the Charlety Sevens for the French Barbarians. It was right at the start of my international rugby career and we managed to win the plate. Those were the days when rugby sevens was played as a bit of fun and a way of building up to the 15s season ahead or as an end-of-season jolly. In Paris last weekend, a new rugby sevens came to town.
I was in Paris as it became the latest host city of the newly expanded HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series which features the world's top 16 teams on a ten-stop journey to the most iconic cities around the globe - Dubai, Cape Town, Wellington, Sydney, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore & then this week London.
Rugby sevens had not been to Paris for 10 years and whilst there was some interest, the home crowd's excitement hinged on the French team putting on a show that would see them go deep into the tournament. Despite being one of the two biggest unions in the world of rugby, Les Bleus have never really embraced sevens in the way that some of the other leading nations have. Until this season it's been something of a second class passenger.
A couple of things have changed that. The first is the sport's imminent debut at the Olympic Games that will happen in Rio in August. I came across this great image over the weekend, showing the USA taking on France at the last Olympic Rugby competition in 1924:
The lure of an Olympic medal is huge. Just ask Jarryd Hayne, who this week sacrificed a promising NFL career for the San Francisco 49ers to fly half-way around the world to the HSBC London Sevens to put in a late sprint to make the Fijian squad for Rio.
One star I saw first-hand in Paris who could light up the Rio games is Virimi Vakatawa. Rugby is a team game, but that doesn't mean you don't need star players. And in Vakatawa, France have found a gem.
His 1m 86 cm frame was born in Fiji but then raised in France. He's signed up exclusively to play rugby sevens, turning down lucrative 15s club offers in the process. In Paris, he scored six tries over the weekend and made countless game breaking runs, carrying the French team to the Cup semi-finals.
But it was the energy and excitement he ignited amongst the home crowd in the Stade Jean-Bouin every time he touched the ball that really lit up the tournament.
We shouldn't just be excited for what Vakatawa and the rest of the French sevens team can do in London this week and then Rio. The other impact of the sport's Olympic odyssey will be its growth, in terms of new players and new audiences. Sevens is a tough game to play, but it's very easy to understand. It avoids much of the contact - particularly in the touch versions - of 15s. This makes is perfect for encouraging young kids, families and women to start playing the game.
There are currently 7.6million people around the world playing rugby and an HSBC Future of Rugby Report predicts that with rugby sevens as the spark, it will ignite significant growth that will double this number to 15million over the next ten years. Sitting in the Stade Jean-Bouin on Sunday and watching Argentina beat New Zealand; Samoa beat South Africa; and the French beat Kenya; you could see this global awakening happening in front of your eyes.
The Olympics has always prided itself on being 'faster, stronger, higher', but this new brand of rugby sevens is changing the game. It was quicker; more skilful; more spectacular.
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