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Rugby Sevens: The best day out in sport?

June 04,2017 22:15

It was the first time neither 12-time winner New Zealand nor Olympic champion Fiji had featured in the top two spots of the overall standings, while South Africa -- dubbed the "bridesmaids" of the sport after four-straight seasons as runner-up -- set a ...and more »

The deluge of tries ensured rugby sevens maintained its reputation as the fast-paced, high-scoring cousin of the fifteen-aside game, while the game's pecking-order also encountered a shake-up with the likes of Scotland, USA, and Canada reaching new heights.The fan experience has been as lively and colorful as ever, with attendance levels peaking at several venues as sevens continues to stretch to all corners of the globe.Las Vegas welcomed 80,691 fans across the three days -- the seventh consecutive year a record crowd has been recorded. And, in just its second year hosting sevens, it is estimated that 76,000 watched in Vancouver, up from 60,000 the previous year. Hong Kong, meanwhile, the world's biggest and most iconic sevens host, regularly attracts 120,000 visitors.
This year, 733,000 are thought to have watched the World Series at its 10 locations; by way of comparison, 458,000 spectated the 2009-10 season.
This growth owes not only to the feast of games on the pitch, but also the culture off it -- fancy dress and fan entertainment has long been a staple of sevens.
Which begs the question... Is a trip to the sevens the best day out in sport? CNN Sport speaks to the fans.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
The Blitzboks celebrate victory in Vegas, where organizers have come to expect big crowds and raucous parties.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
The ever-increasing popularity of the Las Vegas Sevens tournament is helping rugby to become one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
The 2016 event attracted record crowds to Sam Boyd Stadium for the sixth consecutive year. This fan dressed as Donald Trump -- now US President -- who was then starting his campaign to win the Republican candidacy.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
Vegas inspires a party atmosphere, and more than 80,000 people attended across the three days last year -- an increase of 5,000 on the previous best total.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
The Saturday of 2016's tournament brought in 35,716 people such as these fans dressed as Elvis Presley.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
"Since the tournament first came to Las Vegas in February 2010, attendance numbers have increased by 100%," Jonathan First, president of event organizer United World Sports, said last year.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
In common with rugby's US sports rivals, cheerleaders play a big part in the entertainment schedule -- which over the years has included Cirque Du Soleil and fighter jets. Here members of the USA Sevens Sweethearts perform during the 2015 tournament.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
The 2016 tournament was broadcast on NBC and its Sports Network. It reportedly reached national and international audiences in over 400 million homes and 147 countries. Here a Samoan rugby fan supports his team on day two in Vegas last year.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
A security guard chases a costumed fan after she ran on the pitch during the 2015 Cup Final match between Fiji and New Zealand.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
It required two guards to finally bring the woman to the ground.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
Security was busy that day, as this fan also invaded the pitch before Fiji beat New Zealand. It was the All Blacks' fourth successive defeat in Vegas finals.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
This fan also took center stage during a 2014 match between the US and Spain.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
Players get close to the crowds in Vegas -- here members of the Canadian team pose with fans following a 2014 match against Samoa.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
US speedster Carlin Isles is popular with the home supporters. Here he wears a cheese hat at the request of a fan taking his photo after a 2014 game.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
Fiji went into the March 2017 tournament as both rugby sevens' first men's Olympic champion, and the titleholder in Vegas.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
However, South Africa beat Fiji 19-12 in Sunday's final to extend its lead in the 2016-17 world series. Here Cecil Afrika bursts free to score for the Blitzboks.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
South Africa beat the United States 20-17 in the semifinals (player of the tournament Rosco Specman is pictured), and the Eagles finished third after defeating New Zealand 19-15 in the playoff.

Photos: America's growing love for rugby
It was the third successive year the Americans had reached the semifinals at the tournament, which was first held in Los Angeles in 2004. WATCH: Vegas' bright lights and natural beauty

Capacity crowds and whoopee cushions

The format of rugby sevens -- at least 15 teams vying for two pieces of silverware at each of the 10 international tournaments -- is part of the sport's popularity. Go to a tournament, and expect to see upward of 20 rugby games.
"I prefer sevens to the 15-aside game," said Wayne, 42, a South Africa fan at the London sevens. "It's quick, you get to watch more games, and it's just more enjoyable -- a much faster sport.
READ: Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan on the money
"The atmosphere in London's been fantastic, very friendly, more so than, say, a football game."
For John, 42, his first taste of the London sevens was enough to consider another trip in the future.
"The atmosphere is really good, I'm enjoying it," he said. "I'll definitely come back; it's different to the fifteens, there's an international feel to it, which gives you a bit more perspective as well. I'm loving it, it's a great day out."
Sarah, 28, confessed to not being a rugby fan, but regardless embraced the sevens spirit of fancy dress.
"It's my first time at the sevens. To be honest, I didn't really know what I signed up for -- I was just told that I'd dress as a whoopee cushions and have a fun day out. Which it has been, so i don't have any complaints."
READ: Fiji rules in Hong Kong... again
The party atmosphere of the sevens has had its drawbacks. A few years ago, London introduced restrictions on alcohol and also stopped pushing a fancy dress theme as it had done in the past.
In Wellington in 2014, around 270 spectators were removed from the Westpac Stadium for alcohol-related issues and 20 arrests were made. Organizers recently took the decision to move the New Zealand tournament North to Hamilton.
Tickets used to regularly sell out for the Wellington event, but the clampdown on unruly behavior has seen ticket sales dwindle. This year, fewer than 15,000 tickets were sold in a venue with a capacity of 34,500.

South Africa's season -- but trouble ahead?

On the pitch, there were hints of a power shift.
It was the first time neither 12-time winner New Zealand nor Olympic champion Fiji had featured in the top two spots of the overall standings, while South Africa -- dubbed the "bridesmaids" of the sport after four-straight seasons as runner-up -- set a hot pace at the front of the pack.
Five tournament victories helped South Africa -- known as the Blitzboks -- seal the championship at the penultimate tournament in Paris.
"It's just a phenomenal effort from the guys to play in eight finals," head coach Neil Powell told CNN at the season finale in London.
"It's a really good achievement, and obviously we can't now sit back and say that we worked hard. We need to kick on and work on what will make us successful in the future."
But future success for the Blitzboks might rely on player retention. It's not uncommon to see stars from the sevens circuit snapped up by fifteen-aside teams.
This season saw Powell's star man from the opening rounds -- Seabelo Senatla -- sign for South African Super Rugby side the Stormers. Powell says he is hopeful key players can be retained, but accepts that losing certain individuals is part of the way sevens has evolved.
"It's the reality, it's definitely the reality," he said. "But most of our guys are signed up for another year. We should have all their services next year and then we'll have to renegotiate it then.
"Hopefully we can hang on to most of the guys, and also look for some quality individuals outside of our system we can bring in and develop into quality sevens players."

Competitive season

With the likes of Fiji and New Zealand struggling to match their high standards, other nations have seized the initiative.
Canada won its first ever tournament in Singapore, Scotland won its second in London, and USA, spearheaded by the season's top try-scorer Perry Baker, finished fifth overall.
England enjoyed a resurgence to finish second, its highest placing in nine years. Aided by the the game's record try-scorer Dan Norton, who this season surpassed Kenya's Collins Injera to become the top try-scorer in sevens history, Simon Amor's men secured victories in Cape Town and Vancouver.
"We're really, really pleased to get second in the World Series," head coach Amor told CNN.
"There's an awful lot of credit that goes to the players and the staff. The progress we've made this season has been really encouraging.
"South Africa have been outstanding this year, they're worthy champions. To be in eight or nine finals is just phenomenal. They set a pretty high benchmark."
Visit cnn.com/rugby for more news and videos
The 2017-18 season gets underway December 1 in Dubai.

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