Perhaps lost in the commotion of Friday morning’s Premiership Rugby 2017-18 fixture list reveal is that the annual Premiership 7s competition, to be held this season at Franklin’s Gardens in Northampton, had its pool stage drawing.
Since its inception in 2010, the Premiership Rugby 7s series has marked the official beginning of the English domestic season. Cheap, entertaining and novel, the 7s competition marked the opportunity for Premiership clubs to roll out their (predominately) bit-part squad players alongside their exciting youngsters and treat fans to an entertaining handful of rugby-filled evenings sometime between July and August. Even the unnecessary addition of a fourth pool stage for the 2014-2016 tournaments featuring the four Welsh regions didn’t dampen the inoffensive and enjoyable novelty of seeing professional Rugby Union clubs try their hand at Sevens Rugby for a weekend or two during summer.
But at the end of the day, the tournament is just that – an inoffensive, enjoyable novelty to pass the time during the otherwise rugby-less late Summer months and maybe generate a modicum of anticipation for the new Premiership season. The expansion of the tournament to incorporate 16 teams (12 Premiership, 4 PRO12) was excessive as was splitting the competition over five separate days up and down the country.
Thus, the news that the 2017 edition of the Premiership 7s tournament will feature a revamped format should be music to the ears of rugby fans who have better things to do with their Thursday nights than watch a Newport’ side comprised entirely of players under the age of 22 beat the Scarlets 18-10 at a half-empty Cardiff Arms Park.
Premiership Rugby has elected to replicate the format of the Olympic Rugby 7s competition which debuted to much acclaim at last year’s 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The Welsh regions are gone and all 12 Premiership Rugby clubs will compete against each other across two consecutive days at the end of July (Friday 28th – Saturday 29th). The twelve teams have been divided into four pools of three (as shown below) and day one will see each club play three games against the other teams in their pool.
Once the results of the first day have been completed, day two sees the tournament split into a Cup (championship), Plate (5th place) and Bowl (9th place) mini-tournament play-offs. The four pool winners and the four pool runners-up will compete for the Cup with the four losing quarter-finalists subsequently dropping down to compete for the Plate. The last-place club from each of the four pools will compete for the Bowl.
Adding three layers of competition throughout the weekend to ensure each team has something to play for throughout the weekend is a smart decision. It means say, a Newcastle fan, hasn’t wasted their weekend driving down to Northampton if their team is eliminated from competition after two games on the first evening. The final rankings of this year’s competition could also allow for an expansion into seed-based rankings for subsequent tournaments if there was any appetite from Premiership Rugby. The elimination of geographically-orientated pools also means the teams progressing to the knockout stages are there based on merit, not because they happened to just be the best London-based team.
Most important however is the condensing of the schedule into two days – another replication of the Olympic format. Premiership Rugby’s decision to do so in an indication that they have recognise the novelty factor of the tournament, and sought to enrich the fan experience by offering a single destination to see every team. Attendance has long been the main issue for the 7s tournament with teams commonly running out to quarter or half-full stadiums such is the lack of casual interest. By staging the game in a single location across two days, Premiership Rugby has wisely acknowledged they don’t need to draw out an ultimately meaningless tournament across five days and that the simplest way to fix their attendance issue is to bring fans of all twelve teams into one location for a single weekend.
At 15,000 capacity, Franklin’s Gardens is the perfect venue to trail this new format and its central-ish location should ensure the stadium is at near-capacity for both Friday and Saturday with fans from across the country.
In all honesty, even with the pools now drawn an attempt to predict the winners of this year’s competition would be redundant. For all the pre-season excitement Premiership 7s brings, the tournament itself is a bit of a crapshoot. These are ad hoc Sevens teams made up of the quickest (and usually youngest) members of each of the twelve Premiership sides; there are no Flying Fijians or Blitzbokke we can pre-ordain as favourites. The ultimate winner of the competition is unknowable until we see the strength of the teams being put out by each club, and even then the unpredictable nature of Sevens Rugby means we can only offer a very loosely educated guess. Maybe we could crown Wasps as pre-tournament favourites if Christian Wade tries his hand at Sevens again.
Even if Premiership Rugby cannot force its members to take the tournament as seriously as their Olympic counterparts, the rejuvenated format of the upcoming 2017 competition is an encouraging development for its future. By condensing the schedule into two days and a single location, Premiership Rugby has reignited the off-field excitement the on-field rugby deserves.
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