DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – About 25 miles southeast into the desert here, away from the glittering array of skyscrapers that rise into the clouds, lies a sparkling new stadium that is home to one of global rugby’s biggest events. It is, in many ways, completely incongruous:
The stadium is next to a camel-racing track and in the heart of a country whose national rugby team did not officially exist until 2011. But the stadium’s setting is also perfect.
For years, rugby was primarily the province of a handful of nations in Europe (England, Scotland, Italy, Ireland, France and Wales) and a few from the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). The sport, while undeniably popular, lacked reach.
In recent years, though, rugby has blossomed worldwide, in large part because of the expansion of one particular form of the game. Rugby sevens, a streamlined and faster-paced version of the traditional style known as rugby union, is the form that will be used when rugby makes its Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio Games – a reality that has accelerated a change in rugby’s scope.
The growth has been stark: In 2008, the top 10 countries in terms of rugby participation were the nine listed above, plus Argentina.
The attraction for players and fans in countries like Kenya, Portugal, China and the United States is the simplicity of rugby sevens.
Traditional rugby uses 15 players per side, and its pace can grind, as games stop frequently for organized plays like lineouts, in which a player on the sideline tosses the ball between two lines of opposing players, or scrums, in which players from both teams push against each other in a large mass while the ball is rolled underneath to resume play.
In rugby sevens, rhythm, movement and speed are the dominant characteristics, and it can feel as if there are acres of open field, as each team has only seven players.
Instead of standard rugby’s 80-minute games, rugby sevens is played in two seven-minute halves, making for a breakneck pace that generally features constant one-on-one battles in which players shimmy and juke as they sprint for the goal line.
“It’s a game of evasion,” said Zack Test, a former walk-on for the University of Oregon football team who has become one of the leading scoring threats for the United States team. “Imagine if they took away the offensive and defensive lines in football. The speed you would have left is what rugby sevens is all about.”
The scene at the Sevens Stadium here last week was emblematic of that sentiment. Opened in 2008, the complex had the capacity to hold about 100,000 fans – most of them expatriates – for the three-day event, which included youth and adult team tournaments alongside the professional men’s and women’s matches.
On Friday, many fans arrived in costumes – there was a particularly impressive pack of “Star Wars” storm troopers who kept their masks on despite the beating sun – and the stands filled throughout a day of action that stretched for nearly 12 hours.