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March 21, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The Magnificent Sevens

There is one weekend in early February each year when this city simply goes off. For the past eleven years, the Wellington Sevens have seen the 34,500-seat Westpac Stadium sell out at an unnerving pace.

This year was no exception, with tickets disappearing in three-and-a-half minutes. Just for comparison, you had more than five times as long to buy a seat to Metallica the last time they were in town. Hell, if you were here in early February you would have seen the great masses moving through town; people from all walks of life. Sure enough, it’s New Zealand’s biggest party.

Some readers will no doubt be nodding happily at this point, with fond memories wafting through their brains of cramped costumes, expensive eats and sexy smurfs. Others will be suspiciously nonplussed. Indeed, the Sevens is something that seems a little strange at first. A rugby tournament usually brings to mind a jug of Lion Red and the TAB odds in the clubrooms on a rainy day. That really couldn’t be farther from reality. Once you’ve lost your identity and stepped into the world of your costume, it steps up to two days of mad, intense revelling.

It’s fair to say that while the rugby is an important part of the weekend, it’s not the first thing on many people’s minds. The Sevens is, however, an established international tournament. Sixteen teams from around the world descend on Wellington, the third stage in the HSBC Sevens World Series. New Zealand has a pretty good record playing at home, winning five of the twelve tournaments to date, and finishing second twice more. In fact, we’ve become entrenched as one of the best Sevens teams in the world, winning the overall Series eight times since 1999, and taking the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games at each of the four times the code has been involved. The sport will also be present at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016, which seems an appropriate venue for a game that loves to party.

One of the main factors behind Sevens success would appear to be head coach Gordon Tietjens, who has been at the helm since the ‘90s. He’s known as a hard taskmaster, but it certainly appears to be paying off. When you factor in the pull of Super Rugby and the All Blacks, it’s incredible that the team has managed to build such an amazing legacy. According to Tietjens himself, “last year we lost twelve players (…) We had eight players who had never been involved in Sevens before. But the young fellas are adapting well.” This may have been the reason why New Zealand only managed a semifinal at the recent Las Vegas leg of the series, with South Africa going on to claim top prize. This is a good sign for the sport as a whole, says Tietjens, who sees “an understanding out there now, that the Sevens game is not just NZ and Fiji, there are actually six or seven teams that can win.” As it stands, Kiwi fans will stay happy so long as the NZ team can keep winning at home. It’s a pressing issue for Tietjens, too: “Wellington is a huge tournament to win as a home team. We don’t get that a lot with the amount of travelling that we do… People go out of their way, and put a lot of time and effort into it, and it really makes the tournament. When we go out to play, everyone is there to support and cheer us on. They’re just enjoying themselves.”

Tietjens is also a fan of Wellington as a venue, having come out in support of the capital when the city’s hosting contract came up for renewal in 2009. Though other tournaments such as Hong Kong and Dubai have their own niches, “nobody dresses up like Wellington. The stadium really just makes the tournament. You can just walk to and from the stadium, and there’s an amazing viewing capacity. It really doesn’t matter where you sit.” The coach, who confesses to being more concerned with winning the tournament than enjoying the atmosphere, may not be acquainted with navigating the stands while seeing the world through a fairly hazy filter. Happily, it can be reported that it is simple enough to walk around the circumference, beer and chips in hand, until you find the aisle where your friends are hopefully still sitting. As experienced Sevens attendees can tell you, this can be very helpful.

Something that really sets the Sevens weekend apart from any other two-day bender involving sweaty men hurting each other for fun is the much celebrated dress up aspect of the sevens. With (relatively) few rules on what can be worn, creative souls spend months planning their costumes, dressing up in large groups in an effort to stand out. One of this year’s attendees attested to the fact that the costumes are a lot of fun, mentioning that it’s a perfect conversation starter to explain, for example, why you’re covered in blue body paint. While some like being as sexually explicit as possible, most prefer pop culture references or obscure jokes. In a nutshell, Salient readers will fit right in. Even those who have a reason to stay fairly conservative, such as Tietjens, can express a little jealousy at the costumed capers. His favourite costume of all time? “This year, actually, there were a couple of guys dressed up as railway crossings. I bumped into them coming out of a lift and they had lights flashing and alarms going… it just blew me away.” As to whether he would dress up himself, given the chance, the usually gruff coach was surprisingly enthusiastic. “When I’m no longer the coach of the New Zealand Sevens team, I’ll be dressing up. I certainly would. I don’t know what I’d be, but I’d probably look out of place.”

All in all, it’s a chance to get amongst it with the best. Like the lame ‘opening ceremony’ this year said, you can “let it all out!” Air New Zealand will give you beads, and you can trade them for pashes. Everyone will head straight to Courtenay Place for the street party on Saturday night, and you’ll experience something you’ve never seen before. You’ll meet some amazing new people, and you’ll lose your voice, your costume—and probably your dignity. But trust me, it will all be worth it. Even if you do have to get up at 7:58am to buy your tickets.

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  1. Kim Wheatley says:

    And then there are those of us who tire of the rampant homophobia, aggression, alcohol abuse and sexism that go along with our favorite national pastime. I think I’ll have to find a rock to hide under during the Rugby World Cup…

  2. facepalm says:

    ^ I’m sure plenty of people who go to the Sevens aren’t sexist, aggressive, homophobic sexists. It’s the sports issue. Lighten the fuck up.

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