Sideshow upstages Sevens showcase

RUGBY UNION
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The Independent Online
Who says the Middlesex Sevens aren't exciting? At Saturday's eight-hour event, there were countless streakers, most of them male and portly, some of them female and nubile. There was what seemed at first like a rather posh young lady who then turned to the rows of stands seats behind her and simply bared her chest for the thousands.

During the final itself, there was a perpetual pitch invasion where assorted grown men, dressed as Viking warriors, knights in armour or Spider Men, ran across the field of play. And there was a fat boy who bared his bottom to the dignitaries. Though beer was barred from the ground itself, there was clearly enough of it from the bars outside swashing around in the ample bellies on view to sink a battleship.

Or at least to sink a rugby tournament as any kind of credible event. No doubt, sevens is meant to be some sort of balance between festivity and competition, but on Saturday, the off-the-field (occasionally on the field) fun completely overshadowed any player activity.

In fact, there was some strenuous, skilful player activity, particularly from the guest sides. Italy sent a contingent as part of its effort to make friends and gain entry to full international status. They showed some style before falling to Saracens, the eventual finalists. And the South American Barbarians, made up of assorted Latin Americans as well Australians and New Zealanders, impressed before also succumbing to Saracens.

The north London side was itself swamped in the final by the original, British-based Barbarians, whose core of Fijians ran rings round all opposition. The hard-running Marika Vunibaka picked up a couple of hat-tricks.

Of the big Courage League sides, the better they were, the sooner they fell. Wasps, Leicester and Bath went out in the first round. All were denuded of most of their stars: only Joel Stransky appeared for Leicester before hobbling off with a knee injury.

In truth, the final seemed like a side show to the booze-up. Sevens competitions used to have a place as rituals marking the end of the season. Since rugby intrudes still further into summer next Saturday, even this role has now gone.

The organisers may want to ask some questions: is the Middlesex Sevens too long, with its knock-out competition, plus play-offs for losers? Is the best way to deter pitch invaders to get what seemed like a youth rugby team to chase them so turning it into bigger sport than the rugby itself?

And the big question: in the new age, with professional demands on players, can it survive if the big players do not turn up, but the bigger boozers do?

Australian Capital Territory yesterday held off a strong Wellington finish to win 35-29 and set up a return match at their Canberra home in the semi-final of the Super 12 competition. The other semi-final - between Auckland, first in the final table, and fourth-placed Natal - will also be played next Saturday at Auckland's Eden Park. The winners will play the following weekend in the tournament's final.

Results, Digest, page 23

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