3 Jul 2016

Insight: Golf and Rugby Sevens' Big Olympics Debut

From Insight, 8:12 am on 3 July 2016

Women's rugby is set to close the gap on its male counterpart, with the Rio Olympics expected to be a major boost to the sport.

In one of the biggest changes to the Olympic programme in the recent past, rugby sevens is one of two new sports that will debut in Rio in August.

Golf is returning to the programme for the first time in more than a century, while rugby sevens will be making its first appearance.

There was great excitement in rugby circles in New Zealand when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted sevens into the programme in 2009.

At the time, the New Zealand men's team was dominating the World Series and, while women's sevens was still in its infancy, the Black Ferns were the team to beat in the 15-a-side version of the game.

However, the game has become truly global now and New Zealand is no longer the power it once was.

That will probably help rugby sevens' future in the games with the sport only guaranteed until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

The IOC wants depth from its sports, and it certainly has that in the men's game. Depth in women's sevens, meanwhile, is improving, with four or five teams that could win the gold medal in Rio.

New Zealand team member Portia Woodman is certainly excited about the future of the women's game.

The 24-year-old said she had been surprised by the amount of interest the team had garnered from young fans.

"We've had a lot of young girls who come up to us and are asking for autographs and photos and are so excited to get so close, so we're inspiring - and that is part of our vision, to inspire the world with the black jersey.

"I think we're doing that and, if we get a good result in Rio, it will help inspire the world some more."

Woodman has the pedigree for top sport. She's a former top netball player; her father, Kawhena, and uncle, Fred, were both All Blacks in the 1980s, while her aunty, Te Aroha Keenan, is a former Silver Fern.

New Zealand sevens player Portia Woodman.

New Zealand sevens player Portia Woodman Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Woodman and teammate Kayla McAlister both made the transition to the sport from netball, having played for the Mystics before deciding to give rugby a go in 2011.

"We went along and we'll have a crack and see how it goes. It's a new programme and you never know," Woodman said.

"We never thought we'd get this far. The Olympics is just around the corner and that dream is just there, you've just got to try and catch it."

Sean Horan has been coach of the national women's sevens side since 2011, when a full-time position for it was created.

The former Bay of Plenty mentor said the women's game in general in New Zealand had benefited from the emergence of sevens.

"It's getting girls into rugby, which is great. You're getting girls wanting to play 15s, wanting to play sevens and I think that's a great thing.

"Girls aged six or eight or 10 can't be a Richie McCaw or a Sonny Bill Williams, but they could be a Sarah Goss or a Portia Woodman, and I think that's inspiring.

"It's part of our vision: not only to go well at the Olympics, but to create a legacy that inspires women to play this game, and I think we're achieving that."
In 2009, the IOC voted 81 in favour and eight against to include sevens. It prompted the IRB president at the time, Bernard Lapasset, to describe it as "a historic moment for our sport and for the global rugby community, who were united in their support".

Steve Tew and Sonny Bill Williams.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew, left, with player Sonny Bill Williams Photo: PHOTOSPORT

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said it wanted to see more women playing rugby, and was hoping sevens would help.

In 2014, there were close to 20,000 women playing some form of rugby in New Zealand.

In the four years leading up to Rio, women's sevens received $3.7 million from High Performance Sport New Zealand, with New Zealand Rugby adding more than that.

Since the campaign started for Rio, there had been a huge lift in interest from women, including from those currently playing other sports, Tew said.

Without a doubt, he said, the Olympic inclusion had hugely increased the interest in women's rugby.

"The Black Ferns have been remarkably successful but not attracting an enormous amount of interest - but all of a sudden, you have a sevens team with the opportunity to be a professional athlete, and the pinnacle of that is to represent your country at the Olympics, so that's given us an enormous boost."

NZOC chief executive Kereyn Smith.

New Zealand Olympic Committee secretary general Kereyn Smith Photo: Photosport

New Zealand Olympic Committee secretary-general Kereyn Smith said it was quite obvious that women's sport had flourished from its inclusion in the Olympics, and women's rugby was set to do the same.

"Without doubt, being an Olympic sport really changes things generally, but particularly for women - because it's a massive show with incredible television and social media, and those elite women's athletes will be seen by people that have never looked at them before.

"So it will be a major shop window and spotlight on them, and hopefully New Zealand Rugby is able to grasp that opportunity, particularly with young women."

The rugby sevens games will involve 12 men's and 12 women's teams, and will be played over three days in Rio.

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