The only time I was on the cover of a magazine, the headline read: Playing Hard and Fast: Why rugby sevens is the world’s toughest sport.
Rugby has long accepted ownership of the strength, toughness and roughness categories, and sevens has always had more than its fair share of forceful athletes with destructive qualities.
But that doesn’t entirely capture how I see the game. How can a game be so full of power and fierce athletes, and yet so beautiful? Is it just sport… or is it art? I think I know.
Stand aside football, rugby sevens is the beautiful game. I unashamedly borrow Ruud Gullit’s famous words about the round-ball sport when I talk about the type of game I like to watch: ‘sexy rugby’. For me this lies in the intricate plays, the perfect timing, and the flowing ball movement. Perhaps my borrowed phrase isn’t artistic but it does speak to the aesthetic nature of this game.
Often I am in the commentary box, utterly absorbed and phrases will roll out like ‘it’s a thing of beauty’, or ‘they have created something wonderful with that score’. In the same breath, I’ll say ‘that’s raw power’, or ‘that player has just out-muscled the opposition’. Herein lies a superb paradox.
Does sevens rugby put the ‘art’ in ‘graft’? There might be some clues on the field. Take the Flying Fijians for example. Having stood in the tunnel alongside some of these athletes many times, I can assure you their physicality is almost too obvious. Sometimes, I would glance across the threatening space between the teams in the tunnel and the sheer sight of the Fijian lads would make me think, ‘I am in the wrong sport’. You’d be forgiven for thinking muscle was the main thing.
However, when they string together a chain of offloads, seemingly magnetically reaching the next support player in perfect sequence it is like a dot-to-dot from the divine. The flow and faultlessness of the end result is a marvel to behold. Yes, it’s the product of hours of practice and graft, but so were the great sculptures in the world. All we need to indulge us is the end result. Isn't it stunning?
Perhaps the best case studies are two players on the same team. Argentina’s men are fresh off a victory in Cape Town, where tries were flowing faster than the water from the collapsed pool.
Part of their success comes down to two men – Marcos Moneta and Luciano Gonzalez. They are athletes with two very different ways of getting the job done.
The balletic Moneta can skip and weave and dance, and when necessary usher in a delicate conversation between boot and the ball – usually they’re just two words that sound something like ‘try time’.
Gonzalez possesses the most brutish power I’ve seen on a sevens field. He ruthlessly takes his desired route regardless of opposition traffic, who usually end up swept to one side. His wrecking ball tendencies are evidenced by the levelled would-be tacklers in his wake.
Then, there are the stories of the SVNS. What could be more reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces than the closing of the 2020 Olympics being Fiji singing in an empty stadium in Tokyo, gold medals around their necks for the second time after defying the odds of even getting to the start line.
How about the dramatic scenes of New Zealand’s men performing the haka in Hong Kong as the rain poured from the dark sky in 2014? The champions bared their naked tattooed torsos, back-lit by fireworks and floodlights.
Then, my personal favourite, the tragi-comic heartbreak of England beating USA in the knockout stages of Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in extra-time, in San Francisco. These twisty tales of elation and misery are the stuff of the great playwrights, but they live in the real world of rugby sevens.
In my early playing days, someone kindly referred to me as the conductor of the orchestra. Not only did this capture how I wanted to play the game but it did so in terms different from the physical language rugby usually employs.
Since then I have always seen the game as a creative expression. It strikes me that, for some, creativity is more classically artistic in appearance. For others, creativity comes in the form of hits and hardness.
Ultimately, the beauty of rugby sevens lies in its combination of finesse and force. Fine brush strokes of the Moneta, Geduld, Kennedy types à la Claude Monet sit alongside brash, in your face, displays of Gonzalez, Fineanganofo, Niulevaea, Oworu.
The palette of SVNS is made up of varied and deep colours. All the players are the creators, the canvas is the pitch, and we are the lucky ones, in the gallery enjoying the fruits of their labour.
I have run away with the metaphor! However, I shall continue to argue that scenes from HSBC SVNS 2024 deserve a place in the Louvre. Rugby sevens: the beautiful game.
By Tom Mitchell