GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) The road to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic debut of rugby sevens took a lively detour on the weekend to the home of Scottish football’s Rangers.
It even declared a first-time Commonwealth Games champion.
Played before nearly 200,000 spectators over two days, the sevens tournament in a packed Ibrox Stadium featured family-friendly crowds, karaoke-style sing-a-longs and appreciative players who rounded the ground following their final games to thank the crowd for their support.
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On the field, it was all action with seven players covering a wide swath of field where 15 is the norm in regular rugby. Speedy backs offloaded or deftly moved their way around opponents to score as many tries and points as they could in two seven-minute halves, or 10 minutes each in the championship match.
Disco rugby maybe, but in Glasgow on the weekend, it was a huge hit
The Commonwealth Games champion was South Africa in a huge upset over New Zealand in the final late Sunday night, winning 17-12. New Zealand had earned the gold medal in the previous four Commonwealth Games tournaments and had won 30 matches in a row.
In the bowels of the packed stands at Ibrox, Rangers season ticket holder Andrew McNeilly said the allure of rugby sevens was a big winner.
”The atmosphere is far better than football,” says McNeilly, draped in a Scottish flag, his face painted blue and white and with a beer in his hand. ”The crowds are all mixed together, there is a lot more atmosphere.
”Obviously the rugby players take a wee bit of a knocking. The football players get a wee kick and they are down rolling around … diving. So it is a far better sport, a far better atmosphere.”
The first match of the final session – with 50,000 spectators in the stands – featured Canada playing Uganda in one involving those out of the medal round. The crowd immediately took to the underdogs from Africa, shouting out U-GAN-DA on a number of occasions. They also booed when Canada scored, came close to scoring or if any refereeing decisions went against the Ugandan side. All to no avail: Canada won 32-0.
A few matches later, it was England vs. Scotland, another non-medal match, but with considerably more passion in the stands. Hundreds of flags from both countries were unfurled as the teams ran on to the field. England scored early, Scotland came back with a pair of tries, but the home side lost 15-12.
No matter, there was music.
During the Wales-Kenya match, the giant scoreboards scrolled the words to ”Delilah” so everyone could sing along in karaoke fashion. The fact that the celebrated singer, Tom Jones, was from well south of the border in Wales mattered little to the fun-loving Scottish crowd.
The Glaswegians (that’s Glasgow folk) really got into the next offering at halftime between Scotland and England. It was ”I Would Walk 500 Miles” by the Scottish band The Proclaimers. Later, Neil Diamond’s ”Sweet Caroline” was played at halftime of another match. Play resumed, the sound track stopped on the kickoff but the crowd kept singing the chorus, rapturously, for another 10 or 20 seconds.
There’s no doubt sevens rugby is taking off as its Olympics debut approaches – more than 188,000 tickets were sold for the two days at Ibrox Stadium.
Getting ready for Rio, rugby sevens is also on the sports calendar for the second time at next August’s Pan American Games in Toronto, where Canada is the defending champion after winning the title in Mexico in 2011.
The International Rugby Union has announced that the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will have a set of qualifying tournaments ahead of the 2016 Games. The only thing guaranteed is that the top four teams from the IRB world series of 2014-15 will automatically get in.
What’s not so guaranteed is where the Olympic tournament will be played in Brazil.
An original plan to stage the matches at Sao Januario Stadium in Rio had to be shelved because the club in charge of the venue missed a deadline on the project. Rio’s organizing committee then planned to move it to Joao Havelange Stadium, which it would have to share with athletics competitions.
It now, apparently, will be played in a temporary arena at the long-delayed Deodoro complex, shared with modern pentathlon events.
Wherever, Scotland’s acknowledged best rugby player in the 15-a-side version – Gavin Hastings – says sevens rugby is the place to be.
”It’s synonymous with people enjoying themselves and a party atmosphere,” says Hastings.