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The History of Sevens

Friday Feb 20, 2009 in Magazine

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By Allyn Freeman

Among the thousands of people who will flock to San Diego’s PETCO Park this February (14-15) for the 2009 USA Sevens tournament (part of the IRB Sevens World Series held in eight different nations), many will be watching their first such rugby match and few will know how this variation of Rugby 15s began. Sevens—known to rugby aficionados worldwide by this numerical shorthand—has evolved through the decades to become a substantially popular form of the sport, marked by numerous end-of-season or summer tournaments. But its development in the US can be traced back to a historical “Three Ms”: Melrose (Scotland), Middlesex (England), and Manhattan (New York).

Scotland has contributed diverse sporting events to the world scene, from the oldest golf course at St. Andrews (1552) that permitted the community “to rear rabbits on the links and play at golf and futball,” to the Highland Games, where the caber toss is popular among the kilt-wearing set. But the Gaelic nation’s most significant contribution—at least to millions of ruggers—is the creation of seven-a-side rugby.

It started in 1883 when Melrose, a Scottish border club, was in financial jeopardy and “…for want of money …what was to be done to keep the Club from going to the wall?” The answer to paying the bills? Host a rugby tournament. But Melrose’s Ned Haig, an apprentice butcher, realized that several matches of 15-a-side rugby would take all day. His innovative solution was to reduce teams to seven players and shorten the matches to 15 minutes.

In April 1883, Melrose sponsored “The Football Competition,” an invitational event in which they and other clubs in the border vicinity would play an abridged version of rugby. About 1,600 people bought tickets to this new sporting spectacle and witnessed seven hours of open-style play, listened to the musical marches by the uniformed Galashiels’ brass band, and applauded the awarding of the silver cup by the Ladies Auxiliary, fittingly won that year by Melrose. Sevens rugby’s spectator appeal was immediate.

In the years that followed, the Melrose Sevens remained only a Scotland border team competition, with nearby Hawick (founded 1872, total 669 Scottish caps) winning 28 times, followed by neighboring Gala (1876, 46 internationals) with 15 wins. Host Melrose has garnered 11 titles. The tournament celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2008 with a 24-club competition during which 12,000 fans saw the Scottish Thistles beat the Leicester Tigers.

The game remained mainly a Scottish event known as “border sevens” until 1926 when England’s Middlesex County Rugby Union decided to stage an end of spring season April Sevens tournament, choosing nearby Twickenham Stadium as the venue with 50 teams invited. This English event would boost Sevens to a wider audience of rugby fans and, more importantly, to the influential sports sections of the London newspapers. In the 34 ensuing years up to 1959, the winners of the Middlesex Sevens were dominated by well known English clubs, Harlequins, St. Mary’s Hospital in London, and Rosslyn Park.

During these years, Sevens tactics remained static and unimaginative; teams would round up the faster players, throw them into tournaments without much practice or direction. Games were marked by the traditional 15s style of moving the ball forward in anticipation of regaining possession through fumbled kicks or tackling.

It was a Scotsman, Iain Laughland, who would change the stilted style of Sevens rugby. Laughland (31 caps for Scotland) conceived of a “keep away possession” style, marked by swinging the ball from sideline to sideline with players backing each other up. The team would fan out and, if necessary, retreat backward to create gaps in defense. In the early 1960s, with Laughland at the helm, London Scottish won four Middlesex and two Melrose championships.

“It was a great thrill to walk on to the historic pitch at Twickenham for the first time,” said Rhod Thomas (Oxford Greyhounds, London Welsh, and Manhattan RFC) of his years playing at the Middlesex Sevens in the 1960s. The crowds numbered between 10-20,000, more people than most of us playing club rugby would ever see.”

Other clubs started to take Sevens more seriously and most adapted Laughland’s innovative strategy. Even today, London Scottish’s possession style remains the accepted form for all teams, especially the professional sides competing in the IRB 7s World Series. (The 2009 IRB Sevens World Cup for men and women is scheduled for March 5-7 in Dubai.)

The Middlesex Sevens has evolved to become the largest Sevens event in the world; at one time inviting upwards of 300 clubs (1992). Two Rugby League clubs have won the tournament— the Wigan Warriors in 1996 and the Bradford Bulls in 2002. Only in Sevens could the League and Union Laws find common ground.

Little is known about why the New York Rugby Club began hosting a Sevens tournament in the late 1950s, a time when there were just a handful of rugby sides on the east coast of the US. But Manhattan had long been the place where many eastern college students would spend their Thanksgiving holidays. In those days, students met “under the clock at the Biltmore” before heading out to the jazz clubs on West 56th Street or down to the checkered tablecloth restaurants in Little Italy. The NYRC figured that a rugby tournament over the holiday recess would attract players from eastern schools already planning to be in the city.

“RUGBY TOURNEY TODAY—Ivy Schools Represented Here in Seven-A-Side Contests,” blared a New York Times headline in 1960. Twenty-four teams participated, some coming from Canada. Dartmouth was the victor that second year (MIT had won the first tournament in 1959, its “A” side beating its “B” side) with the Big Green’s Tom Congers (whom the Times called “fleet of foot”), the tournament’s leading try scorer.

“Dartmouth cobbled together an A and B side,” recalls Congers. “And most of us stayed with friends in and around New York City.” The games were played at Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, where the players joined forces in the customary sweep of the pitch to clear away broken glass, rocks and other debris.

“It was cold and exhausting with spirited play from all teams, most unaccustomed to the track meet pace of Sevens,” Congers recalls. “In the finals against Harvard, it was already dusk with poor light but we prevailed 11-0 for the championship.”

Fast forward to this past November when the NYRC celebrated the 50th year of its legendary tournament, with 106 teams participating on various pitches on Randall’s Island in Manhattan’s East River. The New York Sevens, the nation’s oldest Sevens event, has now become a fitting prelude to the USA Sevens, the premiere Sevens rugby event in America, and which this February should attract thousands of fans from around the world to San Diego.


Rugby Roots.jpg: In this photo from the 1928 Middlesex (England) 7s, Edgeware RFC (stripes) battles London Scottish, which would later dominate the event in the 1960s (Photo courtesy of Museum of Rugby, Twickenham).

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