Rugby Sevens’ obscure past and bright future

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Australian Sevens Rugby. Image via IRB.com

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Rugby Sevens has a surprisingly long presence in our nation – over 120 years. Yet only now are we realising what a valuable asset the Sevens game can be to the growth of rugby in Australia.

Rugby played with seven players per team began in 1883 at Melrose RFC’s sporting carnival in the Scottish Borders.

Though we tend to think of Sevens as having a relatively short history in Australia, it was first played here just a few years after Melrose, and within decades came to be prized for its attributes as a development tool outside traditional regions.

The first Sevens game played in Australia wasn’t in the major rugby communities of Sydney or Brisbane but in the central Queensland coastal town of Rockhampton in 1891.

The idea of C.A. Mathias, a leading player as well as hard-working volunteer secretary of the Central Queensland RFU, on 4 July 1891 Rockhampton’s three clubs (Wanderers, Berserkers and Waratahs) played Sevens games to raise funds for the local hospital. Held over one afternoon on ‘Union Ground’ (now Browne Park), a large crowd mustered to watch on.

In Sydney in 1910 it was put to the Metropolitan RFU that a Sevens tournament between the city’s first grade teams be played when Waratahs or Wallabies removed the top players from the club premiership matches. It took until 1914, but the idea was finally adopted.

The first Sevens games were played before the Waratahs vs Reds contest at the Sports Ground (now Sydney Football Stadium) on 13 June 1914. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote of Sevens as a “game (that) lends itself to a study of tactics, and, as the play is chiefly confined to the backs, and there are so few men on the field, the pace is very fast”.

The series continued a week later, played before the Wallabies vs All Blacks Test at the Sports Ground. Balmain and Easts met in the Sevens final (the latter winning). Unfortunately, the game was long remembered by the Sydney rugby community more for a wild brawl, in which three players were sent off, than as an exposition of “the new lightning rugby”.

The Sevens game was played by Australian servicemen during WWII while stationed overseas with British units, and on Anzac Day in 1946 – a tournament with Sydney’s ten first grade clubs and two military teams (RAAF and RAN) was held at North Sydney Oval. Manly defeated Northern Suburbs in the final. The event was repeated in 1950, though without the service teams.

Until the 1970s there was a relatively low interest in Sevens in Australian rugby. Aside from a belief that Sevens was a picnic game, and was more for backs than forwards, the reality was on the harder grounds and warmer climes of NSW and Queensland (compared to say the UK where Sevens tournaments remained popular) the fitness demands of Sevens meant few enjoyed the experience.

Sevens rugby though in Australia did find a natural role in the developing rugby states, as a means to introduce local footballers and schoolboys to the rudiments of the 15 aside game.

Entirely independent of the NSWRU and QRU (the ARU was not founded until 1948) Sevens rugby was first played in Perth (1929), Launceston (1936), Adelaide (1939) and Canberra (1940). Widely supported annual Sevens club tournaments were established in Perth (1935 at Cottesloe Oval) and in Adelaide (1939 at Jubilee Oval, now part of University of Adelaide).

Both of these tournaments continued well into the 1950s, and others were played in Hobart, Launceston and Melbourne during the decade. No doubt many in these non-traditional rugby cities agreed with the Adelaide The Advertiser’s view that, “This competition is fast becoming the most popular feature of the rugby season”.

To the south of Sydney, the Kiama Rugby Sevens began in 1973 with a modest eight teams. With the rise of the Hong Kong Sevens providing a leading light, by the early 1980s club and invitational Sevens rugby tournaments spread throughout Australian rugby.

Today Sevens has an IRB world series of national teams, and is looking ahead to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Etching out a pathway and career as an income-earning professional Sevens player is now available to many.

The Hong Kong Sevens last weekend affords an interesting example of where Rugby Sevens is today. On Twitter the Wallabies’ @Kurtley_Beale wrote: Watching the #hongkongsevens. Got to be fit to play Sevens. These players can play. #1on1 #skillful.

In the stands, though, it was for many about all-day boozing and fancy dress, with the on-field rugby an adjunct.

Meanwhile, The Roar columnist @DavidCampese11 tweeted: Here in HK. Still we have a game of 7s with 15 man rules? What a joke. We need to get this game going. Watch the refs at the Sevens? Yours truly asked via @rugbydiehards after a scrum penalty was blown: What the heck is scrum’s “crouch-touch-pause-engage” and its conjoined penalties doing in #Rugby 7s?

The review and evolving of Sevens playing rules is hopefully a long way from over – not solely to drive the game as a television, sponsor and fan-friendly spectacle at the elite level, but to ensure the potential of Sevens as a growing game for social, school and occasional rugby footballers (of all ages and sexes) is not lost.

When rugby’s first clubs were founded in the mid-late 1800s most were formed by social connections made by like-minded young men from school, university, work, pub or cricket ties.

By the 1880s-90s soccer (requiring 11 aside) had an obvious and decided advantage over rugby (15 aside) when it came to ease of forming and costing teams. Clubs and schools in northern England under rugby league in the early 1900s changed to 12-aside to compete with soccer, then the entire code went to 13 in 1906.

Many today, focusing on brevity of the Sevens game and its speed of entertaining action, have pointed out that Sevens rugby can be the code’s equivalent to cricket’s Twenty20. It could well achieve that.

However, the greatest advantage Sevens offers is the yet unrealised one – that half the number of players are needed under Sevens to form a rugby team, or even a one-team rugby club, than under 15 aside.

To some extent we are already seeing examples of one-team invitational selections being formed to play in the ever-growing number of Sevens tournaments. Generally though, Touch rugby or Sevens teams have been organised informally, or under an established 15-aside club.

Sevens rugby affords the potential for a small group to independently form a one-team rugby club, devise their own colours, jersey and mascot, and quickly begin to embrace and enjoy the social trappings and connections that being part of a rugby club and match-day offers.

Somewhat akin to ‘Golden Oldies’ perhaps, but for all ages, offering far more regular games, and establishing a permanent club (a process made even simpler in today’s world of instant communication and social tools). The creation of these micro rugby clubs could provide a means for those who want to play rugby, but can’t commit to it every week, nor the training demands.

Yet, it is this last point that could stymie the potential of Sevens to grow rugby – Sevens is a very physically demanding sport played out on a full sized field, even though it is intended (below the elite levels) as a social game.

If nothing is done, Sevens will inevitably be restricted to those who play (or aspire to play) at the professional level, or in the tournaments and development teams that exist as a pathway toward it.

Some rule changes to bring the Sevens game within reach of all who might wish to play it is worth considering. Managed and targeted well, Sevens could open the door to an entirely new and abundant group of social rugby clubs.

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