Sydney sports fans aren’t known for filling stadiums. But a major sporting miracle is set to happen this weekend when Allianz Stadium -- aka that stadium next to the SCG -- fills up with 45,000 mad fans on both Saturday and Sunday for an event which has never even been held in the harbour city.
It’s the Sydney round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens and everyone is really, really, excited about it. Especially Cameron Clark, a 22-year-old backline superstar of the Aussie team. We’ll get to him in a minute. First, some background on Sevens.
Sevens rugby was once regarded as an amusing offshoot to so-called “real” rugby. If the 15-a-side game was a man with a proper job, Sevens was an out-of-work entertainer who only got occasional gigs.
But Sevens is serious now. So serious that like Peter Allen, it’s going to Rio, having been included in the Olympic program for 2016, 2020 and hopefully beyond. The frenetic sport is a faster, more dynamic, more spectator-friendly, less messy form of rugby. Matches last just 20 minutes, and scoring happens every couple of minutes. It’s tough like real rugby, but a whole lot more open and flowing.
Crowds have more fun too. There are none of the dirge-like hymns which the English crowds sing, and none of that the rah-rah vibe you get at Wallabies match where the stands are populated by too many private school boys.
Like most Sevens tournaments, this weekend promises an atmosphere more like Big Bash cricket, with fans in silly outfits and a real carnival atmosphere. You knew at some point in this article we’d say “carnival atmosphere”, didn’t you. Well that’s because it’s true.
The HSBC Sydney Sevens weekend is part of a 10-leg world tour spanning five continents. Sixteen nations will compete in Sydney. Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa are favoured to win. Australia is fourth favourite. Realistically, Australia sits on the second tier of nations in this form of rugby.
But only just. Australia has beaten all of the above nations in the last year or so, and with the Rio Olympics just six months away, Cam Clark reckons we can do it again. We agree, even though we base that opinion on nothing but blind optimism.
Ahead of the Sydney Sevens, Huffington Post Australia sat down with Clark. Disappointingly, most of the complimentary sandwiches were gone but we had a good chat so it was definitely worth the hardship.
Also sitting in on the interview was (tournament sponsor) HSBC ambassador Steve Hooker. Remember Steve? He won Olympic gold in the pole vault in Beijing and loads of other significant titles in his career. Since he was in the house, we thought we’d drag him into the interview too. Because why not?
HuffPost Australia: G’day Cameron, you might be the first rugby player we’ve ever seen without a single tat on their body.
Cameron Clark: Yeah I’d be close.
HuffPost Australia: None hiding under your shirt?
HuffPost Australia: So we start every HuffPost interview with a sporting personality with the same question. Who would win a fight between a kangaroo and an emu?
Cameron: Um, I’m going to say an emu because I feel you wouldn’t have asked it me it wasn’t an emu.
HuffPost Australia: No, not at all. We’re just asking to see what you come you come up with. We get a fair share of answers both ways.
Cameron: Well, kangaroos are known for being boxers, so I would really have said a kangaroo. I just felt like everyone would have said that so I felt like it was a bit of a trick question.
HuffPost Australia: That’s interesting logic. Are you a contrary sort of guy?
Cameron: No I just felt like everyone would have said emu so I said kangaroo.
Steve Hooker: The emu looks like a scrapper as well, so if you’re a bit of a scrapper you’ll go the emu. They’re a bit skinny but they’ve got those crazy eyes and they’ve always got those crazy eyes.
Huffpost Australia: So emus are on ice but kangaroos are just drunks.
Steve and Cameron: (They make no comment. Seasoned athletes are far too smart too comment on a statement like that.)
HuffPost Australia: So the Sevens are a sellout in Sydney this weekend. Wow. Did we see that coming?
Cameron: Not at all. The first weekend it’s ever been in Sydney. And I guess it wasn’t too successful on the Gold Coast when it was probably half full [it was last held in 2014], so the guys are super pumped to finally get a bit of home support. We’ve had plenty of exposure to big crowds, Hong Kong’s three days of absolute madness, we usually get a lot of booing there. London sells out. They get a couple of years 80,000 people at Twickenham, so we’ve definitely had exposure to big crowds but they’re never really cheering for us so it’ll be nice to have a bit of support. There’s a lot of hate coming towards us usually.
HuffPost Australia: Should be fun for you then. And it should prepare you for Rio if the crowds turn up. What are you looking forward to about the Olympic experience?
Cameron: I guess being part of the wider Australian team will be something quite differnet for us. We had a taste of it at the Commonwealth Games in 2014 [where Australia won bronze] and I guess you can't just focus on yourself, there are a lot of people doing the same thing and I guess there’s the chance to support other people in what they're doing so that’s really exciting for us to be able to say you’re an Olympian something quite special that rugby players never thought they’d get the opportunity to say. There’s a big carrot dangling at the end of the our season so now it’s about building some momentum into that tournament.
HuffPost Australia: Steve, Cameron would have had a taste of the Games environment at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, but an Olympics is bigger, the city is always more chaotic. What does an athlete have to do to beat all that and stay focused?
Steve Hooker: We’ve had a few chats about this and the main advice would be to try to get a sense of balance, so get involved in the wider team. Try to get some energy from the other sports that are out there and the other team members because there’s some real value in that, but that doesn’t have to be all day every day. So choose a couple of sports you want to watch each day and get really immersed and get fired up about it, but then have your down time, have your training time and try to keep them isolated. And likewise with the city and the rest of the activities around the Olympics, go and check out Rio but leave it to an hour a day so you can get a sense of the atmosphere and you don’t miss out on that but you’re still focused on your performance as your core objective there.
HuffPost Australia: So Cameron, all the talk this week has been about Quade Cooper, and whether the star Wallaby will make the Rio squad of 12. Whether he’s there or not, how many blow-in Wallabies do you think we’ll see at the Olympics alongside the regular Sevens players like you?
Cameron: Well I guess Quade and Henry Speight and Nick Cummins [aka The Honey Badger] have all sort of committed to a block of time to join the program. Others apart from that I’m not sure. Our coach has sort of said to us he’s going to pick the best 12 for Rio and he’s said he’s not going to bring someone in just for the sake of it. If I can benefit the side then obviously he will, but I guess the way I look at it is that people need a fair block of time to adapt to the game. Yes it’s rugby, the skills cross over but it’s very much a different game. You need time to adapt to our styles of play, our defensive shape, our strategy. It’ll take time, Sonny Bill Williams got his first taste of the game last week with New Zealand and he admitted he’s still learning the game so if they do decided to bring more people in they give them a decent block of time to get to know the guys in the side and really adapt to how we play.
HuffPost Australia: Let’s cut to the chase. Australians love an Olympic medal. Australia is currently seventh in the World Sevens series standings. Can we do better in Rio?
Cameron: We’ve gotten off to a pretty slow start in the series this year. Last year we finished fifth but in the last year we’ve sort of proven that we can knock off the best sides. We’ve beaten Fiji, we’ve beaten New Zealand, we’ve beaten South Africa. So we know we can do it. It’s about putting six performances back to back that we’re happy with and that are up that level. In the series these days there are a lot of upsets happening, we see it every tournament. So on the day anyone can beat anyone.
HuffPost Australia: Is there a good feeling in the camp?
Cameron: Yeah, and everyone’s really excited for this weekend especially, so hopefully all goes well and the same happens for the rest of the year.
HuffPost Australia: When did you know that you wanted to concentrate on Sevens rather than the traditional 15 man game?
Cameron: I first played a Sevens tournament in 2011 and I think it was a game that really suited the way I played. I got my first taste of it and signed with the Australian side, then started straight out of school.
HuffPost Australia: Describe your playing style in completely glowing, immodest terms for us
Cameron: Well I played at fullback and the outside backs in the 15 man game, so I guess I’m still that style of player. It suits me to have a lot of space on the field, you have a lot of opportunity to beat a man one on one. But the game also tests you defensively a hell of a lot because you’ve got other pretty able athletes trying to beat you as well, so it’s very much a challenge and it took me a while to get my head around the game.
HuffPost Australia: Have you ever experienced rugby snobbery where 15-a-side guys go “oh, he’s just a Sevens guy”?
Cameron: I think people who have played or had a run around at Sevens have an appreciation for it, the level of intensity it’s played at the whole game. There's a lot of running and you get fatigued quite quickly so I think they have an appreciation in that sense. And now the game’s getting quite a lot more physical as well. I think the guys understand that.
HuffPost Australia: Are you totally buggered after a two day tournament?
Cameron: Yeah generally, quite spent yeah.
HuffPost Australia: As everyone knows, the Australian rugby 15-a-side team is called the Wallabies. You guys are just called the Australian Sevens. We need a name. Have you got one?
Cameron: We’ve been called the Aussie Thunderbolts in some domestic tournaments, but that’s the only name I’ve heard of.
HuffPost Australia: We need a fast animal. Or something, anyway.
Cameron: I’ll work on it.
HuffPost Australia: We will too. Good luck this weekend and the rest of this year too.