• Rugby fans have a lot to celebrate (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Monday’s announcement of a new three year partnership between Australian Rugby Union (ARU) and broadcaster Foxtel, in supporting grass roots rugby, is just the next step in growing the game of rugby in Australia.
Jill Scanlon

17 Aug 2016 - 10:02 AM  UPDATED 17 Aug 2016 - 10:03 AM

Off the back of the Australian Women’s Sevens success, firstly in becoming World Champions – winning the World Series this year to secure the world number one ranking – and more significantly in winning the inaugural Olympic Gold medal last week in Rio, the ARU is hoping to capitalise on the momentum gained and on the massive exposure these successes have given the sport of Rugby Sevens and Rugby more generally.

With the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship series about to kick off in Australia there could not be a better time to bring the code into the backyards, schools and footy grounds of local communities.

The deal will see the VIVA7s program that launched last year, renamed as the Foxtel VIVA7s, and will be looking to capitalise not only on the rising profile of the code but on the foundations that were laid in 2015 when the ARU estimates that more than 3000 people, across age and gender brackets, tried the sport through the 36 centres from which it was launched nationwide.

As part of the growing awareness campaign, the ARU celebrated National Rugby Week recently where almost 150,000 primary school students were introduced to the game and especially to the VIVA7s version.

ARU Board member and CEO of Microsoft Australia, Pip Marlow, is a strong advocate of the game at the grassroots level.

“I do think there is work for us to do to continue to connect with all parts of the community,” Marlow told Zela in a recent interview.

“I think if we can create more experiences that attract people then we’ll show how amazing the sport is.”

Targeting grassroots rugby is just one of the elements of the ARUs strategy to gain ground on other more popular football codes.

“We’re competing against a lot of codes for fans and for talent, which is why I’m really passionate about grassroots. In schools and in the community we’re launching more programs post Rio which is great and I really want to spend a bit more time in that space because I think we’ve really got to support our community base,” said Marlow.

While this initiative will address the issue of more participation at community level there has also been a move to more directly capitalise on the success of the Women’s Sevens team.

While the possibility of a National Women’s Sevens competition was floated last month, perhaps just to whet the appetites of those asking the questions and looking for some movement on the part of the ARU, it was in fact confirmed last week following the historic Gold Medal performance.

Laid out as an elite University based national competition, the structure of the high performance Sevens series will be operated in partnership with Australian University Sport (AUS) to commence next year and will involve teams that comprise university students and what is being termed “marquee players” from the national Sevens squads although it is not clear how elite Aussie players based in Narrabeen and living in Sydney as full-time athletes will be able to participate across a range of national university teams.

The ARU General Manager of High Performance, Ben Whitaker, said in a statement last week that:  

“The Women’s University Sevens series will fill a gap in the existing Women’s Sevens pathway. It will be an elite domestic competition with a national footprint, which will act as a stepping stone towards national selection.

“With more regular training and more representative-level games available, the next generation of sevens stars will be able to refine their skills and push for selection in the full-time national squad.”

While there will be questions over how this will affect the existing state-based club rugby competitions and growth pathways, it is at least an acknowledgement that more needed to be done for the competition base in Women’s rugby.

In addition to this there are Youth Women’s Sevens programs being piloted at secondary schools in NSW and Queensland, the heartland states of Rugby.

The questions to come out of these new initiatives are around the broad gap between creating a women’s pathway to national selection through the university series and the desire to encourage a strong growth in participation at grass roots level around clubs and communities.

Pip Marlow is well aware of the ‘elite’ tag around the sport, a perception which she believes is misplaced but knows there is a need to change that.

“When I talk to people in the grassroots and even my friends, I hear that reflected back to me and ultimately the desire is to get rugby to be seen as a sport for everyone, not just white men with a tertiary education,” she said.

The Foxtel VIVA7s initiative would seem to be forging that path but it then leaves somewhat of a gap between these two newly announced programs and the question of how you design a convergence of the two – from grassroots participation promoting healthy active lifestyles through playing the basics of a great game to the ability to continue on the path to play that sport at the highest level – especially if you are a female who enjoys the sport but does not plan on attending one of a handful of universities (or follow the tertiary education path at all).

These are questions that will no doubt be answered in time as the full long-term ramifications unfold of the success of Rugby Sevens as a sport on the broader world stage.

At this point it would seem the ARU is doing its best to keep in touch with the crest of this wave of success and not be unceremoniously pulled down by any undertow.

The clear message is that Sevens is the ‘new black’ of Rugby and deserves to be spread far and wide for anyone who wants to pick up the ball and run with it as their sport of choice – at any level.

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