This week is bittersweet for New Zealand’s sevens players.
Finally, the men’s and women’s teams, the All Blacks sevens and Black Ferns sevens, are back at home for their first World Series event in three years.
Covid-19 crossed out the last two New Zealand tournaments, in 2021 and 2022, but it returns with the Hamilton Sevens this weekend.
However, the sevens festival, which has long been a regular in the rugby calendar, will be lost after World Rugby cut New Zealand as one of its hosts from next seasonwith a revised, shorter format starting in December.
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Sam Dickson and Sarah Hirini, the respective captains of New Zealand’s teams, said they were “gutted” on Friday, echoing what’s been a familiar response throughout the build-up.
“But we’re excited at the same time that we get one more opportunity,” Dickson said.
When either team gets another opportunity to play at home is unclear, but it could be at least four years before another World Series tournament is played in New Zealand.
New Zealand Rugby wanted to keep hosting the World Series but will have to think of another sevens tournament to capture the public’s imagination.
However, retaining the glamor and commercial appeal of a global event, without the world’s finest teams and talent, will not be easy.
New Zealand’s leg of the World Series began in Wellington in 2000 and was a summer phenomenon until interest declined up to the capital’s last tournament in 2017.
Hamilton has hosted the party since. Healthy, vibrant crowds, including sold-out days and plenty of colourful, noisy Fijians fans, returned for its three editions from 2018 to 2020.
“In its heyday, the Wellington Sevens was something special. Hamilton has been really good, too,” Dickson said.
Dickson grew up watching the Wellington tournament before becoming a regular for the All Blacks sevens after his series debut in 2012.
“There were the big dogs back in the day like Eric Rush and Dallas Seymour, then Tomasi Cama, Lote Raikabula and DJ Forbes,” he said.
The next generation might struggle to watch New Zealand’s best on the big stage, as Dickson did.
An absence of a major sevens tournament in New Zealand is, undoubtedly, a massive blow for the sport.
Outside the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, it struggles for prominence and the viewing times for much of the World Series are not friendly for a Kiwi audience.
That potential impact isn’t lost on Hirini, who was part of the Black Ferns’ momentous home Rugby World Cup win in 15s only three months ago.
Their World Cup matches shattered crowd records and the interest for women’s rugby skyrocketed after weeks of unprecedented public exposure, something they appeared to thrive on.
Beforehand, the Black Ferns sevens played an enormous role in raising the profile of the game because of their success and refreshing, infectious personalities which the public could relate to.
They first played an exhibition tournament at the Hamilton Sevens in 2019. The first women’s World Series event in New Zealand was held alongside the men’s the following year.
Hirini said their rare opportunity to play at home was important to them and for fans.
It could be their last chance before next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
“We finally got it [sevens] here, it was a huge success, and I think we gained a lot of fans, especially for the women’s game,” Hirini said.
“To hear that it’s not coming back… it’s going to have a big effect.
“Maybe not in the next couple of years, but probably in the next five or six years. I don’t know whether that’s been thought about or not. It’s higher up that makes those decisions, but whatever we can do to get it back, our team will be trying to do it.”
Hamilton Sevens, day one
All Blacks sevens: Brady Rush, Akuila Rokolisoa, Dylan Collier, Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, Sam Dickson (c), Amanaki Nicole, Joe Webber, Leroy Carter, Moses Leo, Che Clark, Sione Molia, Roderick Solo, Regan Ware.
Saturday’s pool matches: Tonga at 10:16am, Australia at 2:06pm, Great Britain at 7:35pm.
Black Ferns sevens: Niall Guthrie, Stacey Fluhler, Michaela Blyde, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Theresa Fitzpatrick, Portia Woodman-Wickliffe, Alena Saili, Jazmin Felix-Hotham, Shiray Kaka, Sarah Hirini (c), Risi Pouri-Lane, Jorja Miller, Tenika Willison.
Saturday’s pool matches: Papua New Guinea at 11:44am, Fiji at 3:12pm, Great Britain at 8:03pm.