30 Jan 2017

Who killed the Wellington Sevens?

4:16 pm on 30 January 2017

By Jamie Wall* - @JamieWall2

Opinion - Whoever came up with the idea of making the seats at Westpac Stadium yellow probably deserves a spot in NZ sporting folklore.

No other stadium in the country has quite the same way of making visible just how sparse the attendance is for a sporting event. It was the turn of the once-mighty Wellington Sevens at the weekend to float in the middle of the blindingly obvious yellow moat.

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Attendance for this year's Wellington Rugby Sevens tournament was underwhelming. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Obituaries have been flowing for the event despite the fact that it's still got a faint pulse - although that's getting weaker every year.

Along with the sorrow there have been accusations over who put the event in the state in which it currently finds itself. The one weekend of the year that made rugby fans interesting and non-rugby fans interested was, seemingly, hacked to death by the event organisers, the city council, NZ Rugby, World Rugby, the 'fun police', the actual police etc.

But there's one key culprit that doesn't seem to get targeted much in these recriminations, mainly because it is too busy pointing the finger at the aforementioned scapegoats. The role of the media and the media-consuming public in this disaster is just as much to blame, if not more so.

In years gone by, there was a curious cycle of reporting around the Sevens. In the weeks leading up to the tournament, everyone was happy to write stories pumping up the party aspect. I should know, I was the subject of one of them.

Pictures of party-goers wearing not much sat alongside former players trotting out the much-used line: 'If it gets boring, you can always watch the rugby'.

That narrative continued up until the Friday of the Sevens. By Monday, everything changed.

The headlines were now all about the sensationalised antics of the fans who had had too much to drink. Hyped-up anecdotes of debauchery and violence made their way to the very same front pages that had been extolling the virtues of Wellington's big showpiece just hours before.

Now, don't get me wrong. I went to 12 editions of the Sevens and can confirm that, yes, people did get drunk. They would certainly drink beforehand, some would certainly drink too much, and a few would end up doing a few things they regretted. A tiny amount found themselves in the Stadium's own jail cell, where they'd be able to sober up and hear all the fun they were missing out on.

Crowds at the Wellington Sevens in 2012.

Crowds at the Wellington Sevens in 2012. Photo: Photosport

The key word here is tiny. As in, about 0.3 percent of patrons ended up getting in trouble with the law. But that was hardly going to shift any newspapers or get website clicks. People were interested in the salacious details of the girls gone wild or the beer and testosterone-fuelled fisticuffs on Courtenay Place - which, when it was all said and done, was no worse (or better) than any other weekend.

Once the outrage was set in motion, it was pretty difficult to stop this cycle of praising the Sevens on one week and condemning it the next. After all, the stories were all essentially the same - you just needed to cut and paste and change the date.

Of course, now all that's left of the Sevens is a rotting corpse that gets exhumed annually for everyone to talk about how great it used to be. Because of course, that's the easy narrative now - everyone is eager to lay the blame.

Never mind that it rained for three tournaments in a row from 2011-2013, probably ruining any chance of anyone attending it for the first time of ever returning. Or the fact that the vast majority of locals that made up its core attendance over the years have grown up, got married and had kids. That's all a bit boring.

At least New Zealand can be proud of replacing one national tradition with another. Instead of looking forward to rugby every year, we can all just have a huge whinge instead.

* Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the sole highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game to anyone who'll care to listen.

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