Rugby sevens, also known as seven-a-side or VIIs, is a variant of rugby union in which teams are made up of seven players, instead of the usual 15, with shorter matches. Rugby sevens is administered by the International Rugby Board(IRB), the body responsible for rugby union worldwide. The game originated in Melrose, Scotland, where the Melrose Sevens tournament is still played annually. The game is popular at all levels, with amateur and club tournaments generally held in the summer months. Sevens is one of the most well distributed forms of rugby, and is popular in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and especially in the South Pacific.
Notable international competitions include the IRB Sevens World Series and the Rugby World Cup Sevens. Rugby sevens is also played at some multi-sport events such as the Commonwealth Games, taking place four times (1998 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2002 – Manchester, England, 2006 – Melbourne, Australia, and 2010 – Delhi, India), each time the gold medal being won by New Zealand.
Rugby sevens is now recognised as an Olympic sport and will make its debut in the 2016 Summer Olympics. This follows a vote by the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to include the sport. That decision was backed at the 121st International Olympic Committee Session in Copenhagen on 9 October 2009.
Rugby sevens is sanctioned by the IRB, and is played under substantially the same laws with an exception that the team that scores has to restart with a kick off and is played on a field of the same dimensions as the 15-player game. While a normal rugby union match lasts at least 80 minutes, a normal sevens match consists of two-halves of seven minutes with a one-minute half-time break. The final of a competition can be played over two-halves of ten minutes each, with a half-time break of two minutes. (In the IRB Sevens World Series, only the Cup final, which determines the overall winner of an event, is played with 10-minute halves; all finals for lower-level trophies are played with 7-minute halves.) Sevens scores are generally comparable to union scores; scoring occurs much more frequently in sevens, since the defenders are more spaced out.
The shorter match length allows rugby sevens tournaments to be completed in a day or a weekend. Many sevens tournaments have a competition for a cup, a plate, a bowl, and a shield, allowing many teams of different standards to avoid leaving empty handed.
Sevens tournaments are traditionally known for having more of a relaxed atmosphere than fifteen-a-side games, and are often known as “festivals”. As The Encyclopedia of Rugby Union Football (1976) puts it, they gained their “popularity as an end of season diversion from the dourer and sterner stuff that provides the bulk of a normal season’s watching.“
Fans frequently attend in fancy dress, and entertainment is put on for them.
The Hong Kong Sevens tournament has been especially important in popularising the game in Asia, and rugby sevens has been important as a form of international rugby “evangelism”, hence is perhaps the most widely played form of the game, with tournaments in places as far apart as Bogota and Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kenya, Singapore and Scandinavia, as well as the countries in which rugby union is well known.
Sevens is played on a standard rugby union playing field as defined in the International Rugby Board‘s handbook. The field measures up to 100 metres (330 ft) long and 70 metres (230 ft) wide. On each goal line are H-shaped goal posts.
Teams are composed of three forwards and four backs. Scrums are composed of three players from each team. Because of the speedy nature of the game, sevens players are often backs or loose forwards in fifteens rugby.
There are several variations in laws which apply to Rugby Sevens, primarily to speed up the game and to account for the reduced number of players. The main changes can be summarised as follows:
Nestling beneath the shadow of the Eildon Hills, the Greenyards at Melrose in Scotland is the original home of rugby sevens
Rugby sevens was initially conceived in 1883 by Ned Haig and David Sanderson, who were butchers from Melrose, Scotland as a fund-raising event for their local club, Melrose RFC. The first ever sevens match was played at the Greenyards, the Melrose ground, where it was well received. Two years later, Tynedale was the first non-Scottish club to win one of the Borders Sevens titles at Gala in 1885.
Despite sevens’ popularity in the Borders, it did not catch on elsewhere until the 1920s and 30s. The first sevens tournament outside Scotland was the Percy Park Sevens at North Shields in north east England in 1921. Because it was near from the Scottish Borders, it attracted interest from the code’s birthplace, and the final was contested between Selkirk (who won) and Melrose RFC (who were runners up).
In 1926, England’s major tournament, the Middlesex Sevens was set up by Dr J.A. Russell-Cargill, a London based Scot. One of the key events in the spread of sevens to England was the Middlesex Sevens, which had some formidable figures on its subcommittee such as Wavell Wakefield and Bill Ramsay. The Middlesex Sevens were also a great fundraiser for charity, and in 1926, they raised £1,600 for King Edward VII Hospital, at a time when standard admission was a shilling, and stand seats cost five shillings.
A 1927 description of the game at the Middlesex Sevens (also for King Edward Hospital) gives an idea of the novelty of the game to English people:
Whereas the Scottish Borders were a rural area, the Middlesex Sevens were near the suburbs of London which was home to millions. 10,000 spectators attended the second Middlesex tournament. And while the Border Sevens had honed the skills of players in the Scottish rugby heartland, the Middlesex Sevens did likewise for London rugby, with locally based players such as the aforementioned Wavell Wakefield, Carl Aarvold (later Recorder of the City of London) of Blackheath FC, Wick Powell of London Welsh RFC, and John Tallent, who would later become chairman of the Four Home Unions Tours Committee. They rubbed shoulders with various invitation sides such as Sale RFC in 1936, which included such players as Wilf Wooller and Claude Davey of Wales and Ken Fyfe of Scotland amongst their backs; and in 1939, Cardiff RFC, which included players such as Wilf Wooller again, and Les Spence and Wendy Davis.
Due to the success of the format, the ongoing Hong Kong Sevens was launched three years later, in 1976. The Rugby World Cup Sevens, in which the Melrose Cup is contested, was launched in 1993. Three of the best known sevens competitions are the Hong Kong Sevens, Wellington Sevens, and the Dubai Sevens which now make up part of the IRB Sevens World Series.
The Scottish connection continued in the foundation of the Hong Kong Sevens in the 1970s, founded largely by expats such as “Tokkie” Smith, and in England, London Scottish RFC was strongly involved in the Middlesex Sevens from the start. The Hong Kong Sevens were ahead of their time, and an influential force in the modernisation of rugby union, for example, the Hong Kong Sevens were one of the first rugby union tournaments to attract major sponsorship, when the airline Cathay Pacific sponsored the 1976 tournament. They also provided a level of cosmopolitan international competition, which tended not to exist in rugby before the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, especially since Hong Kong was not seen as one of the “Big Eight”, and other than some involvement with France, the British Commonwealth teams tended to be notoriously clannish. By 1986, the Hong Kong Sevens were held up as a positive example to others:
However, despite this apparent diversity, some of the same old problems which had dogged international rugby were still manifest in the Hong Kong Sevens in the 1980s – for example, in a photograph of the Hong Kong vs Bahrain game at the tournament in 1984, the teams do not appear to include anyone who is ethnically Arabian or Chinese, instead both teams are quite clearly of northern European ethnic origin.
Rugby sevens continues to be popular in the Scottish Borders, where the ten most prestigious of these tournaments make up a league competition known as the “Radio Borders Kings of the Sevens”. In honour of the role of Melrose RFC in the creation of rugby sevens, the club was inducted along with Haig to the IRB Hall of Fame in 2008.
Sevens has also taken strong root in the South Sea island nations of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, as well as the African nation of Kenya. In many minor rugby nations, such as the case of rugby union in Poland, development has tended to concentrate on rugby sevens as a means of introducing the sport to people. Rugby sevens has become popular in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai, which are not so successful in the full fifteen-a-side code. In addition, seven of the 15 current “core teams” that compete in all legs of the IRB Sevens World Series represent nations that are not within the recognised top tier of the 15-man game — Fiji, Samoa, Kenya, United States, Canada,Portugal, and Spain.
New Zealand has been by far the dominant force in the IRB World Sevens Series, winning eleven out of the 14 seasons. However, in recent years, several other teams have successfully challenged New Zealand’s dominance. Fiji, long a power in sevens, were winners in 2005–06; South Africa won in 2008–09; and Samoa claimed the 2009–10 crown. Other strong contenders in recent years have included England, Australia, and Argentina, all of whom have won an event within the last three seasons.
Sponsored by the IRB, and held every four years, this tournament had been the highest prize in the Sevens version of rugby union with Fiji being the most successful, having won two out of the five World Cups. However, due to the upcoming introduction of sevens to the Olympics in 2016, the Olympics is now viewed as the most high-profile rugby sevens tournament. Beginning with the next edition in 2018, the World Cup Sevens will be held in the middle of the Summer Olympic cycle (i.e., in the same year as the Winter Olympics).
The IOC voted in 2009 to include rugby sevens and golf on the program for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 2016 Summer Olympic program is scheduled to feature 28 sports and a total of 38 disciplines. There were two open spots for sports and initially seven sports began the bidding for inclusion in the 2016 program.
Rugby sevens has been played at each of the Commonwealth Games every four years since its first appearance at the 1998 Commonwealth Gamesin Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Rugby sevens is now considered a “Core” sport by the Commonwealth Games Federation, necessitating its appearance at all future games. The New Zealand team has won the gold medal on each occasion. It is one of the two male-only sports at the Commonwealth Games, the other being boxing.
Rugby sevens is also played at various multisport competitions including the Asian Games, the Pan American Games, and the Pacific Games. Rugby union was formerly played at the World Games, but this is due to cease as it is now an Olympic sport.
Portugal defeated Russia 28–26 to the Grand Final of the 2005 FIRA European Sevens in Moscow to retain the trophy they have won for the last three years. Spain won the Plate with a 25–14 win over Germany, whilst Lithuania claimed the Bowl. Portugal topped their group on day one, recording four victories and a 7–7 draw, against Italy. In Pool B, Russia delighted the home fans with five wins out of five, including a 33–7 victory over France. They followed that up on day two by defeating Italy 17–0 in the Cup semi-finals, whilst Portugal beat France 22–7.
This new format of European Championship was created this year. Based on the IRB Sevens World Series, it is composed of 4 tournaments. After its final win in Bucharest, Portugal is the winner of the competition. England, for its entry in the European Championship, had a great start (victories on the two first stages in Lyon and Moscow) but finally finished second of the competition. Spain is third while Russia take the fourth place after winning in Bucharest.
Next year, Germany and Scotland will enter the competition. Romania and Moldova will be playing in Division A
Women’s rugby sevens has been dominated by New Zealand, with either the New Zealand team (1999–2001) or Aotearoa Maori Women’s Rugby sevens team (playing as New Zealand)  winning the annual Hong Kong Sevens tournament from 1997 until 2007. The United States won the Hong Kong Sevens in 2008 by defeating Canada in the final (New Zealand failed to send a team).
The inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament took place in Dubai together with the men’s tournament during the first weekend of March 2009. England defeated Canada 12–0 in the Bowl final while Australia edged New Zealand 15–10 in extra-time to become the first to win the Women’s Rugby World Cup.
The IRB organised its first official women’s sevens tournament outside of the World Cup as part of the 2011 Dubai Sevens. This was part of a plan to launch a full IRB International Women’s Sevens Series for 2012–13. The international series was officially christened as the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series in an IRB announcement on 4 October 2012. The series, as planned, launched for the 2012–13 season and initially featured events in Dubai, the USA, China, and the Netherlands. Two additional events are planned for the upcoming 2013–14 series, with one already confirmed for Brazil.
Women’s rugby sevens was included in the IRB’s successful bid to reintroduce rugby to the Olympics in 2016. It is also bidding for inclusion in the Commonwealth Games in 2018.