WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Jan 26 – The Wellington leg of the World Sevens Series kicks off on Saturday with poor crowds again dominating the build-up to the two-day event.
The sevens was once the hottest ticket in the New Zealand capital and tickets for both days at the 35,000-capacity Westpac Stadium sold out within minutes.
But the party atmosphere that used to attract tens of thousands of fans in fancy dress has dissipated and organisers expect only 15,000 a day this year.
Martin Snedden, the sports administrator in charge when New Zealand hosted the 2011 Rugby World Cup, said it was time for a change of venue after 18 years in Wellington.
“History will judge the Wellington Sevens down the track as being an amazing success story, but what’s really apparent now is that it’s probably run its course,” Snedden told Fairfax New Zealand this week.
“That’s not a negative comment. That’s really a reflection of the fact that an event has a life cycle… and this one seems to have reached the end.”
The tournament gained a reputation for drunken revelry during its heyday, with police and the local council demanding an end to the booze-fuelled antics.
But it has struggled to reinvent itself as a family-friendly event, despite lowering ticket prices and offering more off-field entertainment.
There has also been competition in recent years from the Auckland Nines rugby league competition and critics say there is a perception the Wellington Sevens feels tired.
What is undeniable is that fans are staying away in droves. The once packed-out stadium attracted only 18,000 a day in 2015, falling to 12,000 a day last year.
– ‘Flogging a dead horse?’ –
Organisers may struggle to reach their 15,000-a-day goal this year as gale-force winds and heavy rains have lashed Wellington for most of the week, killing any summertime buzz in the city.
While the sevens is contracted to remain in the capital until 2019, Snedden said World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby had some tough decisions to consider.
“Is it best to keep trying to re-energise it? Or is it ‘maybe we’re flogging a dead horse?’ That’s a judgment call they’ve got to make.”
On the field, reigning Olympics and World Sevens Series champions Fiji (32) will seek to close the gap on South Africa (41) and England (39), who have a win apiece in the two opening rounds.
But local interest will be focused on the Pool C grudge match between New Zealand and Gordon Tietjens’ Samoa.
Tietjens coached New Zealand for 22 years before announcing his departure in the wake of last year’s failure at the Rio Olympics, and then accepted a role with the Pacific islanders.
However, he was still officially contracted to NZR, which made him sit out the opening rounds, making Wellington his first tournament in charge of Samoa.
Tietjens, who has described his treatment as “hurtful”, said his former charges would be fired up.
“(They) won it the last three years in a row in Wellington and they’ll be motivated to do it again,” he said.
“They would have been disappointed in their first two tournaments and they’ll look to redeem themselves.”
The Wellington event is also likely to mark the debut of English cricket legend Ian Botham’s grandson James, who has been named in the Wales squad.
James, or Jimbo to his grandad, was born in Cardiff and has represented Wales at under-18 level, playing as a flanker.