A GoffonRugby Opinion Column by Alex Goff
The USA 7s tournament has turned IRB Sevens World Series scheduling on its head.
To accommodate network television (NBC), which will show the tournament live from 12:30 to 3pm local time on both Saturday and Sunday, USA 7s has changed the schedule on Day One, adding a fourth game for top teams, and has changed the schedule of finals, putting the Cup Final before the finals for the Shield, Bowl and Plate.
These changes might, at first glance, be upsetting to many – four games in a day? Isn’t that too much? Could that over-stress the players? Hold the Cup final before the other finals? Doesn’t that suck the momentum out of the event?
Maybe. But before we announce that the United States, and specifically USA 7s LLC, have both destroyed the purity of the 7s tournaments, let’s look at it a little deeper:
How Different is It?
Day One in Las Vegas will involved four games for the top eight teams. Basically, after pool play, the tournament takes a break for the Women’s International Semifinals, and then comes back with the four Cup Quarterfinals. The top eight teams will all play four games.
That is clearly and obviously a major difference.
In addition, the day itself is longer. For the bottom eight teams, the day of competition lasts nine hours, on the low end for most IRB tournaments. But for the top eight, their day will last 12 hours, which is longer than at any other tournament. Not, however, exceptionally longer. Hong Kong and Adelaide both have days of competition that last around 11 hours.
So it’s different. There’s an extra game (what that means we’ll discuss later in this article), and extra time (but not hugely extra).
Is Rest Between Games Reduced?
The short answer is no. We looked at the USA 7s schedule and the George 7s in South Africa. The average rest periods for teams and the high and low rest periods are pretty much the same.
Rest periods between the third game and the fourth game are not short – the shortest conceivable rest period is if the USA or Japan finish 2nd in their pool. Their rest period is just under two hours.
Does an Extra Game Hurt the Players?
Short answer here is, how would we know? There have been no intensive studies looking at whether three games is the optimal number of games to play in one day in an international sevens tournament. It has just worked out that three games is ideal for the tournament organizers.
Here’s what we do know:
High-level and international 7s events have made teams play as many as six games in a day. I am including World Cup Qualifiers in this list. No one has complained.
Shortened 15s games have far more actual rugby and moments of contact per minute than a full 15s game. I know this because I studied it myself during a tournament of shortened 15s games I organized. Four 20-minute games offered, according to my stats, about 30% more contact moments than a regular-length game.
So knowing that, we can assume with some confidence that 42 minutes of 7s rugby (3 games) is more grueling than 40 minutes of 15s rugby. And therefore 56 minutes would be even more so. Is it more grueling than 80 minutes of 15s? No one knows.
What we do know is that the IRB has guidelines for under 19 players. Those guidelines say that in a tournament of shortened games these players are limited to 90 minutes of play in a day. If that means five 18-minute games, then so be it. I can tell you from experience that five 18-minute games is A LOT of rugby for a teenager, but they can handle it. I think adults can handle 56.
What we do know is that, according to player anecdotes, playing a three-day tournament of five or six games is harder on them than playing a two-day tournament with the same number of games.
The IRB has no trouble being fluid in handling player rest. Teams can play two World Cup 15s matches in a period of five days. Players are routinely asked to play 45-50 games in a season, a number most agree is too many.
Will the Schedule Change Strategy?
Yes, quite possibly. A top team might look at its Day One schedule and decide to rest a bunch of starters for a supposedly easy game. This, in turn, could create an upset. What if Australia rests starters against Canada and loses? Suddenly they are 1-1 going into their final pool match against Fiji. You wonder if Australia might complain about the schedule then.
But, it’s a team’s decision.
Is Shifting the Cup Final Dumb?
Well first think on how TV has influenced sports. World Series games starting at 9pm … football games in London being played so USA fans can watch and not get sleepy … so moving the Cup Final isn’t really all that big a deal.
As Mrs. GoffonRugby said to me when I claimed with authority that having the Cup Final last is the only way to go … “Why?” Yes, good question. Why?
Tournaments can see fans leave early after their team is eliminated but before the championship game. Now, with having the Cup Final before the consolation finals, USA 7s and NBC can depend on a full house for the championship match. And the championship match will be on live TV.
It doesn’t matter that much that the Cup Final will be held before the other finals. It’s a little weird, but does nothing to affect the competition.
What Does the IRB think about This?
Sources within the IRB and close to the issue say the IRB is positive about the move. They recognize first of all that American network coverage of the HSBC IRB Sevens World Series is a huge leap forward for the game and for marketing the game.
As a result the IRB is supporting the schedule shift and are most likely looking at the changes as the opening of the door to adjusting other tournaments going forward.
Looking ahead, this will all be moot within a few months. The IRB is looking into expanding the Sevens World Series, and expanding the number of teams in each tournament. If they do that, they are going to have to look at all sorts of different ways to run a tournament, including securing a second field (as they did at the 7s World Cup in Dubai), re-working the consolation rounds so that the final can make prime time TV, and finding ways to make playing the games worthwhile.
If the tournaments get bigger, is the Hong Kong model, where several teams play only four games over three days, the right way? Or would it be better to have four pools of six, with teams playing five pool games and then going into the knockout rounds?
The truth is, we don’t know what is the right amount of games for an international 7s tournament. We don’t know for sure how fans will react to a tournament where the Cup Final isn’t the last match of the day. And we don’t know if having teams play four games in a day completely changes the competition.
We do know, that while accommodating network television can be annoying, it provides huge benefits. And after Las Vegas, we’ll know a lot more than that.
Comparison of USA 7s Schedule with other tournaments:
Length of day:
USA 12 hours
Wellington 9 hours
Biggest rest between games for one team:
USA 4:17 (France)
George: 4:27 (Australia)
Number of rests over 3.5 hours:
Shortest rest between games for one team:
USA: 1:50 (Australia)
George: 1:38 (Zimbabwe, Kenya)
Number of rests under 2.5 hours: