The Olympic sport of Rugby Sevens is now 131 years old, having been ‘born’ in 1883 – 10 years after the formation of the Scottish Football Union – in the Scottish Border town of Melrose.
The Melrose club had a fine rugby side but was experiencing financial difficulties and the committee, in an attempt to raise much-needed funds, decided to organise an athletic meeting, or a Sports Day, at the end of the 1883 season.
With the committee concerned about the financial outlay involved, apprentice butcher Ned Haig and his master David Sanderson proposed cutting down the teams from 15 to seven players (three forwards, two half-backs and two backs) and the playing time to 15 minutes in total (two halves of seven minutes each and one minute half-time break). The Melrose committee agreed unanimously to hold a Sevens tournament, unaware of the historic significance of its decision.
Seven Border clubs – Gala, Selkirk, St. Cuthbert’s Hawick, Earlston, Melrose, Gala Forest and St. Ronan’s Innerleithen – entered the first tournament held on 28 April, 1883 at the now famous Greenyards ground. The leading clubs in the district, Gala and Melrose, reached the final, which ended in a draw after 15 minutes of play. Sanderson scored a try and, as captain, led his team from the field and claimed the Ladies Cup, also giving birth to the modern day concept of sudden-death extra time.
Sevens popularity grows
Sevens spread quickly in the Scottish Borders with Selkirk, Gala, Hawick, Jedforest, Langholm, Kelso and Earlston launching their own club tournaments and the game is now a major feature at the beginning and the end of the season in the Scottish Borders.
It is said that Nelson, the cradle of the game in New Zealand, was the first place to stage a School Sevens tournament outside Scotland around the turn of the century, although documentary evidence is scant. Instead, there is plenty of evidence that 1921 was the year Sevens rugby took off internationally with the North Shields Sevens at Percy Park in England and the Buenos Aires Sevens sharing the distinction of being pioneers of the international short game.
The Middlesex Sevens, launched by Dr Cargill in 1926, became an attractive end-of-season event in England, but the biggest seven-a-side tournament in the world remains the Rosslyn Park Sevens, launched in 1939 by the late Charles Burton, founder of the Public School Wanderers, which every year gathers ever more school teams from around the world.
In 1973, the Scottish Rugby Union celebrated its centenary with an international seven-a-side tournament – the first in history. The SRU Centenary Sevens gave a glimpse of the huge potential of the short game. England prevailed by beating an Irish team in the final at Murrayfield, having overcome strong opposition from Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, France and the Barbarians.
Hong Kong seed sown
Legend has it that among the keen Murrayfield crowd in May 1973, there were a couple of Hong Kong expatriates, Ian Gow and ‘Tokkie’ Smith, the then Chairman of the Hong Kong RFU. From there, the idea of a regular Sevens tournament took shape and by the end of 1975 the first Hong Kong Sevens tournament was devised, with the inaugural event played in 1976. By the mid-1980s the event was firmly established on the rugby calendar.
With Hong Kong helping to raise the exposure of the game’s shorter form, 20 years after the SRU’s Centenary Sevens, and following the successful staging of two 15-a-side Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991, the International Rugby Board accepted the SRU proposal to hold a RWC Sevens tournament in 1993 with the offer of the Melrose Cup, a trophy modelled on the original Ladies Cup of Melrose, as the top prize.
The RWC Sevens has since gone from strength to strength and has twice now – in 2009 and 2013 – staged men’s and women’s competitions side by side, mostly recently in Moscow, Russia, when New Zealand claimed both titles.
By far the most dramatic and accelerated changes, however, have come in more recent times with Rugby Sevens’ acceptance onto sport’s grandest stage. Ten years after the inception of the IRB Sevens World Series in 1999, in October 2009 in Copenhagen the members of the International Olympic Committee voted almost unanimously to accept Rugby Sevens into the sporting programme of the Olympic Games for 2016 and 2020.
Since that time, investment and development in the shorter game has been dramatic, and this in turn has increased the competitiveness across both the men’s and women’s elite games.
While New Zealand continues to hold sway in the men’s World Series, and has claimed the title in the first two years of the Women’s Sevens World Series, the number of sides capable of winning tournaments and reaching the final knockout stages has rocketed, with notable emerging forces challenging the status quo, such as Fiji, Samoa, Kenya and Canada in the men’s game and Russia, USA and China in the women’s.
Alongside the growth of both World Series, Sevens has also continued to grow as a proven attraction among other multisport games, such as the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Pan American Games, All African Games and World University Games.
World Rugby Sevens World Series (men’s) – Roll of honour
1999/00 – New Zealand champions
2000/01 – New Zealand
2001/02 – New Zealand
2002/03 – New Zealand
2003/04 – New Zealand
2004/05 – New Zealand
2005/06 – Fiji
2006/07 – New Zealand
2007/08 – New Zealand
2008/09 – South Africa
2009/10 – Samoa
2010/11 – New Zealand
2011/12 – New Zealand
2012/13 – New Zealand
2013/14 – New Zealand
World Rugby Women’s Sevens World Series – Roll of honour
2012/13 – New Zealand
2013/14 – New Zealand