Rugby Sevens’ obscure past and bright future Roar Pro

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    Australia has qualified for Rugby Sevens at the 2016 Olympics.

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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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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • March 28th 2012 @ 4:18am
      Mella said | March 28th 2012 @ 4:18am | ! Report

      had no idea Sevens had such a rich history in Australia, thanks for the write up. No mention on the roar of the fantastic womans final over the weekend, England scored on the last play to beat Australia. It was the perfect example of how low scoring games are the best games of Sevens, 10 minutes each way and they only scored a try each going into the final minute, and it was end to end the whole game. Mens final was great as well but too many tries on soft repeated penalty advantages which is emerging as a real problem for Sevens. If you want to make the sport more accessible to juniors or social competitions, one simple idea is to narrow the field for these competitions. Otherwise its too much running and the fastest kid will score at will. When it comes to refereeing, I thought it was impossible but the IRB have even found a way of stuffing up Sevens. Campo is right its being way over reffed. I’ve even seen refs pinging players for ‘tackler not release’ when they do a one on one strip, your even allowed to do that in league! Overall was still a great Hong Kong sevens and the new format was brilliant, got to give the IRB credit sometimes.

    • March 28th 2012 @ 6:26am
      p.Tah said | March 28th 2012 @ 6:26am | ! Report

      Fascinating, thanks again Sean.

      I love 7s and 15s. rugby is fortunate to have these 2 versions.

      • Roar Pro

        March 28th 2012 @ 1:20pm said | March 28th 2012 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

        What are arising are 7s invitational one-team clubs (using players from XV clubs) such as this in USA , but what I was speculating is whether the future will see 7s progress to stage where clubs are founded & players/members join them to play/support the 7s game.

    • March 28th 2012 @ 7:15am
      hotdog said | March 28th 2012 @ 7:15am | ! Report

      How do you find out all this stuff? Amazing ! With great appreciation for your fantastic research.

    • March 28th 2012 @ 9:54am
      King of the Gorgonites said | March 28th 2012 @ 9:54am | ! Report

      Interesting article once again Sean.

      One question – was sevens rugby always 7 mintues a half?

      • Roar Pro

        March 28th 2012 @ 10:18am said | March 28th 2012 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        The Melrose 7s of 1883 began as 15 minutes apparently (2 x 7m, with one minute break). From what I can tell from Aust & NZ reports of 7s games though allocated playing time was set by the local tournament organisers, and many varied.

    • March 28th 2012 @ 9:57am
      King of the Gorgonites said | March 28th 2012 @ 9:57am | ! Report

      The Roar – can we stop listing Jottings as a Rookie. His knowledge is second to none. re-classify him as an expert.

    • March 28th 2012 @ 10:45am
      Stevie said | March 28th 2012 @ 10:45am | ! Report

      7s is like the T20 of cricket, it is exciting and fast and draws in the crowds but we must make sure it is not to the detriment of the 15 man a side game. As seen in cricket where the introduction of T20 has had a major impact in the decline of the 50 over game I hope this does not have the same affect on the 15 man game.

      • Roar Pro

        March 28th 2012 @ 10:57am said | March 28th 2012 @ 10:57am | ! Report

        @ Stevie. I think at the moment 7s lacks the contest interest to get too many enthralled beyond party dresses and lager indulging. That’s why I suggested/hope that the IRB is looking to the 7s laws. There is still something lacking in 7s to the wider rugby public.

        I also think if handled well, 7s can be used to attract people to ‘rugby’ who, for whatever reason, aren’t involved in playing/watching XVs. I understand the point your making in a cricket setting, but I think in rugby that 7s can compliment the full sized game, rather than create a divide of existing resources.

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