Women's rugby teams play at Dubai Sevens
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—The women's national rugby teams at the Dubai Sevens are looking to stake their claim on the sport after securing a spot in the 2016 Olympics.
The United States is among the favorites to win the inaugural Women's Sevens Challenge Cup that began Thursday and includes Australia, South Africa, Canada, England, Brazil, China and Spain.
It's the first time women's teams are represented alongside the men at an International Rugby Board-sanctioned sevens event.
"It's an exciting step," said U.S. captain Beth Black, a high school health teacher. "Obviously, we don't get as much playing time as the men do. To just to be another step closer to getting a piece of what they do is awesome."
Rugby Sevens is the faster cousin of the traditional 15-a-side game -- consisting of seven players, two seven-minute halves and a two-minute break in between. The International Rugby Board has been working hard to raise the profile of the game in the two years since winning a spot at the Olympics.
The IRB also sees sevens as the ideal vehicle to expand the reach of the women's game.
"To be honest, what sevens has done, it has given a new level of opportunity to showcase the game on the world stage," said Susan Carty, the women's development manager for the IRB. "It has been huge advantage in terms of a development tool in a lot of countries where rugby isn't traditional and numbers have been quite low. It's added a new perspective and a new way of growing the game."
The announcement of the women's tournament in Dubai comes as the IRB finalizes an ambitious plan to grow women's rugby over the next five years "across all continents beyond the 200,000 registered players currently regularly competing."
The plan also aims to "provide greater competition opportunities on the world stage" for sevens and 15-a-side rugby, as well as delivering an "exceptional tournament" in 2016.
"Women's Rugby is currently on a high," IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said in a statement. "Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009 firmly placed it on the global map, demonstrating the sheer universality and appetite for the game."
In the United States, several milestones have been made in sevens this year. It hosted the first Women's Club Sevens National Championship and next month will hold the first Women's College Sevens National Championship.
Sevens is attracting athletes who grew up playing soccer, basketball and are drawn by rugby's speed and agility.
Black, who grew up playing soccer and took up the 15-a-side game in college, said she knew from the moment she played a sevens match that it was for her.
"The creativity of the game. It's not as scripted," she said. "You just get out there and play. That's the draw to it at least for me. The speed, the creativity. It's almost like backyard basketball. Fifteens has a lot of scripted plays and plans. It's not as fast. People will get addicted to the speed."
Sevens in Australia has seen a dramatic turnaround and most credit the Olympic announcement. It has gone from almost no sevens tournaments before the announcement to most big cities and even small towns hosting competitions. The Australian women's national team -- which hasn't played an international match since winning the 2009 tournament -- is expecting to fill out its schedule next year.
"It's only really picked up now that it's an Olympic sport," Australia captain and center Rebecca Tavo said. "A lot more girls are coming into camp to try out for the Australia team. It's only going to get bigger. ... Everyone is trying to get a piece of sevens. Everyone is trying to organize a tournament."
Despite all the talk of the growth of the game, the women in Dubai said there's plenty of work to be done.
Most of the women's teams still lack funding and even the best teams, such as the United States, play only a handful of international matches each year.
Many are playing their first international match since the 2009 Rugby Sevens World Cup. Missing from the field in Dubai is New Zealand, the runner-up at the tournament.
Many players pay their own way to matches and most hold full-time jobs because they can't make enough playing the sport. The IRB and Dubai-based airline Emirates airlines are covering the cost of traveling to the tournament this week.
While they welcomed the chance to play in Dubai, the Americans questioned why the women aren't being included in more stops on the IRB world series, which has nine tournaments on five continents and ends in England in May.
"There is more needed. Let's call a spade a spade. There should probably be four this year," said USA Rugby coach Ric Suggitt, suggesting the women also could be playing in Hong Kong, Las Vegas and London.
Carty said a women's series was in the works, part of the IRB's plans to shift from simply increasing the number of women playing the game to "focusing on high-performance" rugby.
"We want to go to the Olympics with a fantastic women's event that will showcase the best of the best," Carty said. "Obviously, that is where we want to be in 2016 at the world stage. We want to produce world class athletes, a world class event."
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