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Tony Ward: IRFU's new Sevens initiative a big step in right direction

It almost went unnoticed but last Thursday's announcement of an All-Ireland Club Sevens Championship by the IRFU is a big step in the right direction to bringing us in line with the rest of the rugby-playing world.

It is hard to believe that, 16 years into the game going professional, we still remain outside the IRB Sevens fold.

Most people in this country aren't even aware of the IRB World Sevens series. How could they, given that with the notable exception of the Sevens World Cup we have -- for some reason best known to those in high places -- given the abbreviated game a wide berth?

All the other big guns, with the exception of Italy, take part in the World Sevens series on a regular basis. We only appear every four years like lost sheep. How could it be otherwise when so little time, effort or finance is invested in what is set to become a global sport after it makes its Olympic debut in Rio in 2016?

Indeed, there is a real danger that Sevens could one day overtake the 15-man game in terms of popularity. However outlandish that might seem today, don't say you haven't been warned. The appeal of Sevens is in its simplicity -- it is all action, with tries literally by the minute.

In putting the abbreviated version in the biggest shop window -- the Olympics -- the IRB run the risk of seeing Sevens overtake the 15-a-side game in terms of mass appeal.

The next Sevens World Cup will be held in Russia in 2013 and clearly that is the aim of the governing body here in declaring this domestic game initiative now.

There will be four provincially-based tournaments to be followed by an All-Ireland Sevens Club Championship, with the winning team representing Ireland at what is termed a European 'Ultimate Sevens' tournament during the summer.

The Club Sevens will see teams drawn from the regular 15-man club game. Two teams from each provincial Sevens competition will go on to compete in the All-Ireland Club Sevens Championship to be held at Templeville Road on May 21.

The four provincial rounds will take place in early May with Cork Institute of Technology, Terenure College, Galway Corinthians and Belfast Harlequins the hosts. It is a very welcome initiative providing an opportunity for Sevens to take a grassroots foothold in this country.

It will provide the chance for players outside the academy system to make their mark. Of course, those already entrenched in the academy fast-track system -- of which I am not a fan -- hopefully will be included.

It may not run as deep as in Scotland -- it originated in Melrose -- but there has long been a history of Sevens in this country. In my playing time, the Easter Monday Blake Sevens in Glenina, the Omagh Sevens and the Old Belvedere Sevens were massive events.

I played in many other regular Sevens tournaments outside the country as well -- and all this before the May Bank Holiday weekend Kinsale Sevens became the big event it is now.

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We do have a history and, unlike the 15-man version, it is not a complex code to master. The spin-off could be huge. Look no further than the opening weekend of Super 15 rugby over the weekend and the two stand-out individuals -- Robbie Coleman in the centre for the Brumbies and Tim Nanai-Williams on the wing and at out-half for the Chiefs. Both are products of the Sevens circuit with Australia and New Zealand respectively.

I cannot identify a single bad habit likely to emerge through playing Sevens. On the contrary, it highlights pace and appreciation of space and skill, specifically in support and lines of running.

Ireland are operating at a huge disadvantage, given our self-imposed exile from the IRB Sevens World circuit.

There is scope too for an Aviva or Thomond Park sell-out festival comparable with Wellington or Hong Kong from times past.

As with the advent of professional rugby, we are being dragged into a soon-to-be-Olympic sport not by design but of necessity. That is sad but, as professionalism has taught us, most definitely not insurmountable. Better late than never and, although the governing body might not see it as such, the decision -- however reluctant it may have been -- to finally embrace Sevens is win-win.

Irish Independent

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