Ask any player on the HSBC SVNS 2024 circuit and they’ll tell you about the hotel in Dubai.

It’s lavish and opulent, luxury incarnate, a place that wows everyone no matter how many times they’ve been lucky enough to stay there and one they never take for granted. 

For the OGs of the women’s series, it also represents how far they’ve come.

There are still a handful of women’s players on the series who competed in the inaugural event in Dubai at the end of 2012. 

Australia’s Sharni Smale (née Williams), Brazil’s Luiza Campos, USA’s Lauren Doyle and South Africa’s Mathrin Simmers all opened the 2024 season in Dubai last week and will line up for their respective nations again this weekend in Cape Town, while New Zealand’s Sarah Hirini was injured in the opening round. Others, like Frenchwoman Chloé Pelle and Aussie star Charlotte Caslick, made their debuts later in that same 2012-13 season.

As she left Dubai and headed to Cape Town for round two of the 2024 season, Doyle suddenly realised that she had probably just played in the desert for the last time. She says the Emirates Dubai 7s will always be the tournament that the originals hold dear.

“We started out staying at a Premier Inn in the middle of the desert and we’d have a pre-tournament event at the men’s hotel and it was like, ‘this is where you guys stay?’, so that was wild to see how much nicer it was. Eventually we moved to the Marriott we’re at now and it was one of the real shifts we saw to show how they’ve valued the women.”

For Campos, the 2012 tournament in Dubai was the first time she had left Brazil. She says it’s almost as if the women’s series has grown with the city.

“I was talking to my younger team-mates who were saying how huge the buildings are, and said the first time I got there, there was nothing – no canal that’s now beside the hotel, there weren’t as many huge buildings. The original players saw the city come out of the sand, the beaches be built and the buildings go up.”

Back then, the women’s competition was played on separate days to the men’s and often on pitch two. Fast forward to 2024, and there’s equity across the board – men and women play the same number of events at the same venues and for the same match fees for the first time.

Doyle reflects on how far women’s sevens has developed and grown since they started out just over a decade ago.

“I’ve played in the 11th-place play-off and now we’re always trying to compete for medals. The determination, grit and how much we’ve invested, particularly this current group of girls, is a huge shift whereas previously we had a few more players drift in and out,” she says.

Campos, famed for her multi-coloured hair, often a different hue at every event, says she’s always had a bit of a “rebel spirit”.

Even though she’s now the most senior player, she maintains that attitude and hopes younger players feel like they can express themselves as well. While Brazil still battles against some of the much more well-resourced programmes, she can see huge shifts from where they were when she started out and is proud to have helped lead the way.

“I’m happy to still be here and helping my team be the best possible. While it’s nice to see the new players come through it’s great to look around and see many of us who started out still going. For Brazil, we have bright moments and then dips, so it is a rollercoaster; I’d like the new players to show that we’re not just speed and athletes, but we have really good rugby too.”

The 12 women’s teams have seen huge advancements in resources in the past decade which has helped them become world-class players in one of the toughest sports in the world. But both Doyle and Campos agree on perhaps the biggest change and one some of the originals have had to learn to adapt to.

As recently as 10 years ago, neither player could have imagined themselves standing in front of TV cameras, dancing, practising try celebrations, engaged in quick-fire questions or part of big promo shoots, spending time in front of the green screen for World Rugby studios.

Doyle, a marketing graduate, knows how important the social side is for the game and says they’ve come a massive way in terms of interest and media coverage … just don’t expect her to be putting her hand up to show off her acting skills. Long gone are the Facebook status updates of 2012, replaced by choreographed Tik Toks and viral Reels.

“The social media shift that has catapulted sport in general has been a huge change, I don’t think I even had Instagram when we started on the series," Doyle said. "Obviously, green screen is not my favourite thing, and I do understand the benefits of it, but I leave it to the people who are really passionate about it!”

With another four-year cycle about to reach its climax in Paris there’s a likelihood that many of the veteran players will move on (they don’t use the R-word) after the Olympics. 

Although there are newer locations and bigger stadiums for Doyle, Campos and the other women’s sevens series originals there’ll always be a place in the memory bank for the days of the Premier Inn in Dubai, when they started something that has become bigger than any of them ever imagined.

By Rikki Swannell