The first weekend of February will see the third annual Rugby League Nines tournament held in Auckland. There are plenty of people who see the Nines as a throw away tournament not worthy of their attention* but this year’s event is significant in at least one important way – it means that it will have outlasted the sport’s last attempt at a limited player game – the World Sevens.
There was a time when a Sevens tournament was a mainstay of the Rugby League calendar. Held over 2 days, the fast paced format started at Parramatta Stadium before growing too big for the confines of that ground and heading to the Sydney Football Stadium, which had double the crowd capacity. From the late 80’s the Sevens ran for 10 consecutive years before a lack of interest combined with the fallout from the ongoing Super League war saw the idea thrown on the scrap heap for a while.
But time passed. Wounds were healed. People’s indifference was seemingly forgotten and after a 5 year hiatus, the sport attempted another Sevens tournament in 2003.
In the time between the 1997 and 2003 iterations of the game, I had finished high school, started working (importantly, gaining expendable income) and grown fond of drinking beer. A whole day at the football stadium watching Sevens and getting drunk sounded fantastic to me** so I spent a day out there doing so.
As tends to be the way with these things, some teams took it seriously (predominantly those who had not had a successful season in 2002) and a couple of others sent kids. But that didn’t always mean that the results followed as you would expect. The 2003 Sevens was the first time most of the world got a look at Sonny Bill Williams as coach Steve Folkes – who was always vocal about his disdain for the competition – sent an inexperienced team to make up the numbers. Only they won the “Plate” section of the tournament, inadvertently giving some experience to kids that would help the Dogs to stay competitive through much of the naughties.
South Sydney were saved the blushes of a Wooden Spoon on their first year of re-admission into the competition in 2002 by the Bulldogs salary cap scandal, but they went into the Sevens with a side that had speed to burn and were looking to do well. Even as a Souths fan, I was skeptical, but they proved me wrong on the first day by topping their group, and falling just short of an appearance in the final the following day. Of course for them it didn’t translate into anything of note as they continued to struggle for the remainder of the decade.
What it really proved was what most people already suspected. Sevens doesn’t really mean anything to the real stuff.
As well as the 15 NRL teams of the time, the tournament had national sides from the likes of England, PNG, Tonga, France, Fiji, Samoa, Lebanon and Russia to help fulfill the World part of the event’s title.
Much to the disappointment of most in attendance, England actually did quite well. They ended up making the final but ultimately losing to Parramatta*** by a massive 30 points.
The thing with the Sevens was that it was probably the easiest job you would have in convincing your mates to go along for the day. There was (full strength) beer, entertaining footy, and EVERYONES team was playing! What more could you want?
Apparently a fair bit.
The following year’s Sevens was met with a little less enthusiasm, in spite of the expansion to 26 teams, and the brief Rugby League return of Australia’s favourite hate figure, Anthony Mundine, with the NASCA Aboriginals side.
More teams joined in the Bulldogs’ strategy of sending their kids to play and not taking it seriously. The increase in international sides of limited skill saw the level of play drop for some excruciating periods where the Mexican Wave was the most impressive thing happening.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t some bright spots though.
It was an opportunity for a very young Benji Marshall to show what his footwork could do to a defence, as the Tigers scored in the final minute of their Semi to get the win over St George and eventually win the whole thing.
There was also a crowd favourite from the Russian side who I recall being some sort of 6’8” chip kicking monster, but I feel like the legend may have grown in my mind over time!
But injuries came. To big name players too. Clubs began to get frustrated with the scheduling and it was the beginning of the end.
Ultimately, for a tournament called the WORLD Sevens, it probably didn’t help to have 4 Sydney clubs in the final 4 positions (Dragons, Eagles, Eels and Tigers) either.
Thankfully this is a trap that the Auckland Nines has avoided, and I for one think that the tournament is better for it. All teams are from the same competition, and the playing field is as level as you want to make it.
The interesting thing with the Nines though, is that the last two winners of the NRL, are also the last 2 winners of the Nines (though in reverse order) and it has almost managed to give the whole thing that tiny bit of legitimacy that it needs to survive. Almost.
The same rumblings that brought down the Sevens are beginning to get louder for the Nines, so make sure you take the chance to watch it while you can. It could be gone by next year.
*Phil Gould has recently declared that he refuses to talk about it in a massive boost for the sport’s promotion
**This feeling seems to have stayed with me, as I spend almost every other Saturday of the summer at the SFS doing the same, only it is Sydney FC that are playing now.
***Who, incidentally, won the Sevens in 1997 – the last time it was held – making them technically the longest holders of the title over the 6 years. The team they beat in 1997? The Bears. The losing finalists in 1996? The Bears. Poor guys couldn’t even win a Sevens title.