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History of Sevens


The origins of rugby sevens can be likened to those of basketball: both were documented inventions, in the late 19th century, of people that never imagined they were creating sports that would not only endure, but be played worldwide. What James Naismith was to basketball, Ned Haig was to Sevens.

Ned Haig was born in 1858 in Jedburgh, in the part of Scotland known as the Borders, and moved to the neighboring town of Melrose where he became a playing member of the Melrose Football Club.

It was in 1883 that Haig devised a seven-a-side tournament to make money for his club. "Want of money." he wrote later, "made us rack our brains as to what was to be done to keep the club from going to the wall, and the idea struck me that a football tournament might be attractive. But as it was hopeless to think of having several games in one afternoon with fifteen players on each side, the teams were reduced to seven men."

The first seven-a-side rugby tournament was held in Melrose on April 28, 1883. The seven team tournament was won by Melrose, who defeated Gala in overtime, one try to none.

The festive nature that we associate with sevens was part of the first tournament, as the following quote from the Border Advertiser of May 2, 1883 indicates.

By the time this event . . . commenced an enormous crowd of spectators had assembled, special trains having been run from Galashiels and Hawick and about 1600 tickets being taken at Melrose during the day. . . . The Galashiels Brass Band, in uniform, came by the special train and discoursed music at intervals, the light fantastic being tripped by a good few of the young people to its strains.

Now well into its second century, the Melrose Sevens remains the king of the Scottish 7s' tournaments, and a trip to the Melrose Sevens is an annual pilgrimage undertaken by thousands of Scots (and others).

The Melrose Sevens and its history will be described in greater detail in a following chapter.

Sevens in Scotland: the early years

The success of the Melrose 7s was contagious, and within a few years, several Borders 7s' tournaments followed in Melrose's footsteps. The Gala 7s were inaugurated in 1884, followed by Hawick in 1885, Jedforest in 1894, and Langholm in 1908.

When Britain returned to sports at the conclusion of World War I, sevens was still a game confined not only to Scotland, but to the Borders region alone. Expansion in the Borders continued immediately with the addition of the Selkirk and Kelso 7s in 1919 and 1920.

1920 also saw the first 7s' tournament outside the Borders, run by the Royal High School in Edinburgh to aid a War memorial fund. Within the next two years Edinburgh Institution and Kelvinside (Glasgow) followed.

Sevens moves to England

In the early 1920s, sevens finally crossed the border to the south. Spurred on by their visits to the Borders' tournaments, several clubs in the north of England began to hold their own sevens' tournaments (North Shields, Rockcliffe, Northumberland, and Carlisle at least), between 1921 and 1923.


Finally, in 1926, sevens made it to London: on April 24, 1926, the first Middlesex Sevens was played. Whereas the aim of the Melrose club in 1883 had been to raise money for their club, the Middlesex committee's aim was to make their tournament a fun event, in order to end the rugby season in a cheerful social atmosphere.

The winner of the Middlesex sevens for the first four year of its existence, 1926-29, were the Harlequins, who, 60 years later have duplicated their feat by winning Middlesex in 1986-89.

Middlesex would soon be able to boast of being the largest 7s' tournament in the world, selling out the 60,000 seat Twickenham stadium annually.

Because of its importance as probably the best-attended sevens' tournament in the world, Middlesex is treated in more detail in another chapter.

More Sevens in England

Sevens' tournaments continued to increase in number in England through the 1920s and 1930s. Possibly the most significant addition to the 7s' world was the Rosslyn Park School Sevens, inaugurated in 1939.

The [English] RFU was unable to provide any information on sevens within its borders. Fortunately, Derek Mann, the Chairman of the Middlesex Sevens, was more helpful and of great value in putting together the chapter on Middlesex.

Those "magnificent" London Scottish

No history on sevens could be complete without mentioning the London Scottish team of the 1960s that continues to live on in legend and lore.

London Scottish dominated the Middlesex Sevens, winning in 1960-63 and 1965. Added to this and two Melrose Sevens' victories (1962 and 1965) were large numbers of victories in other sevens' tournaments.

Whereas part of London Scottish's success was certainly related to their success in fifteens (twice in 1963 they supplied 7 players to the Scotland XV), they are still remembered for the revolutionary style they brought to the game.

Charlie Hodgson, a member of the 1965 Melrose championship seven, notes that whereas the Borders style was more traditional and based on going forward and rewinning possession at tackle situations, this was a new style. It didn't look as neat as the Border style but it was very effective. If the wing didn't have a clear run, for example, he was encouraged just to stop and come back and move the ball. It was a style that was based on possession. They'd actually stand around quite a bit just moving the ball back across the field. They were prepared to go back, everyone was backing up behind the ball.

This style of sevens, known as the "possession" or "keep-away" style, remains as perhaps the most popular way to play the game today.

London Scottish was led, both in fifteens and sevens, by their brilliant fly half, Iain Laughland. "He was the little general," notes Hodgson, "he was in charge of all the tacktics and everything." Melrose historian Jack Dun, who has been to more than 50 years of sevens, adds "Iain Laughland was the king. He was the one that had the gift . . . " London Scottish's pre-eminence in sevens paralleled his career, and did not live after him. The style of play they developed, however, did. And to this day, in the British isles, the London Scottish are remembered with reverence by sevens' aficionados.

Sevens in Wales

The date of the introduction of sevens into Wales is not known exactly; the first major sevens' tournament, the Snelling Sevens, was first held in 1954, and 1966 marked the beginning of the Welsh Rugby Union National Sevens.

The Snelling Sevens continues today as at least a semi- successful tournament, held annually at Newport's Rodney Parade; it attracts crowds of about 3000 interested, but not wildly enthusiastic, fans.

The Welsh national club sevens championship was less successful, and ultimately folded. The last Welsh club 7s champions were Cardiff College (A.K.A. South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education), in 1982.

There are several "popular" tournaments in Wales, including those at Aberavon, Cardiff High School Old Boys, and Old Penarthians. These, however, seem to derive their popularity from the "day out for the family" perspective, rather than from an intrinsic love of the game. Basically, there has not been that much interest in Wales for the 7-man game.

Despite this apparent lack of enthusiasm for sevens, Wales surprised the world by being the first of the Home Countries to send an official national side to the Hong Kong Sevens, in 1990. They were rewarded for their efforts by a stunning quarterfinal upset victory over Australia.

Sevens in Ireland

Sevens is not widely played in Ireland, although it goes back much further than most people realize, and actually predates Middlesex by a couple of weeks. The Evening Mail Sevens was played annually from 1926 until 1946, and was competed for by all the Leinster Senior Clubs. Dublin University were the most frequent winners, with six championships.

The early 1950s saw the introduction of two junior sevens' competitions: the Keating Cup and the North Kildare RFC Sevens. The Keating Cup was originally contested on Palm Sunday at the Old Belvedere ground. Although it was well-attended, it folded in 1979. It has been resuscitated in the 1980s, but at another ground and in September. The North Kildare Sevens, held on Easter Sunday, continues. Early big winners at these tournaments were St. Mary's College and U.C.D. (University College, Dublin). Lately no single team has dominated.

Old Belvedere coach George Hook, multi-talented coaching consultant to the USARFU, notes that as a player with St. Mary's, he was a seven-time winner in these two tournaments.

The first existing senior 7s' tournament of note, the Old Belvedere Sevens, did not begin until 1971. Loughborough Colleges and London Welsh, between them, won the first four tournaments, which was not won by an Irish side until the Dublin Wanderers 1975 victory.

Of recent years, the [London] Harlequins have dominated this tournament, as they have virtually every sevens' tournament they have chosen to enter.

The Irish Wolfhounds are a regular fixture and a crowd favorite at the Hong Kong 7s. Very often, however, the "stars" of the side are non-Irish guest players.

Sevens in Scotland today

Despite what appears to be intense pressure from the Scottish Rugby Union to reduce its commitment to sevens, the Borders' region continues to hold exciting and well-attended sevens' tournaments: the Selkirk and Kelso Sevens are held prior to the start of each season (end of August/early September), and the five weekends beginning with the first April Saturday are occupied with the Gala, Melrose, Hawick, Jedforest, and Langholm Sevens. In addition, the Minerva Sevens opens the Glasgow rugby season each year.

While those listed above comprise the major sevens' tournaments, there are lots of minor ones: Melrose historian Jack Dun noted in 1990 that, of the 98 clubs in the Scottish national championships, more than 40 held sevens' tournaments.

Unfortunately, senior sevens' tournaments in Edinburgh no longer exist, which perhaps helps to account for the SRU's lack of encouragement for the sport.

Sevens beyond the British Isles

Sevens' growth beyond Scotland shortly extended not only to the remaining British nations but throughout the world. In the program that commemorated the Melrose Sevens' Centenary in 1983 the following dates and countries are noted:

1920 Fiji

1920 Buenos Aires

1930 Vancouver

1938 Amsterdam

1949 Malawi

1953 Ontario

1955 Quebec

1956 Hong Kong

1960 Alberta

1970 Manitoba

1970 Wellington (NZ)

1972 Paris

1975 New Brunswick (Canada)

This was obviously a very incomplete list, and although many additions will be made in the material that follows, much research remains to be done for the 7s' historian.

Sevens in New Zealand

Club. Contrary to what most of us thought (including both the Melrose historian and me), sevens is not a new phenomenon in New Zealand. The sport not only goes back at least into the 1940s, but a club championship, the Middlesex Cup, has been held annually since 1951.

The Middlesex Cup. Throughout the first 25 years of the Middlesex Cup the tournament was moved to sites throughout New Zealand; since 1978, however, the tournament has been restricted to sites within South Island.

The tournament format was changed in 1988, when the Hong Kong format -- Cup, Plate, and Bowl divisions -- was introduced and the tournament played at Balfour (Southland). Bracket champions were Central Pirates, Balfour, and Mossburn, respectively.

Although all New Zealand clubs are invited to the Middlesex Cup, to date it has not been an important tournament. The late New Zealand RFU secretary Barry Usmar wrote in 1989, however, that "it is the intention of the NZRFU Matches Sub-Committee to endeavor to lift the status of the Tournament in the future."

The Taupiri Sevens. Despite the long-lived Middlesex Cup, real high-level club sevens seems to have been introduced to New Zealand only in 1984 with the advent of the Taupiri Sevens, held in the Waikato dairy farming village at the foot of Taupiri Mountain. All the top Auckland and Waikato sides attend, and the majority of the players that will represent the All-Blacks at Hong Kong can usually be found at Taupiri playing for their club.

Originally an endurance contest requiring seven games to win, the Taupiri Sevens switched to the Hong Kong format in 1990. Not bound to tradition, Taupiri has introduced several time saving features such as requiring all kicks at goal to be drop kicks.

Auckland Marist, four-time champions, have shown by far the best form at Taupiri to date.

Dominated to-date by northern North Island teams, Taupiri is working hard at getting the best teams of both New Zealand islands as well as top teams from around the world.

Despite the relative youth of their tournament, they are succeeding: in 1989 Hyatt Fiji, with several Fijian national players, won the championship; in 1990 the American invitational side Atlantis made it to the Cup semifinals, and the first South Island team, Linwood (Christchurch) were the Bowl champions.

The Taupiri Sevens is held on the last Sunday of February, one week before the national provincial sevens, the trial for the selection of the All-Black Sevens' team.

Because it will probably emerge as the premier club sevens' tournament of the Southern Hemisphere, the Taupiri Sevens will be described in more detail in another chapter.

Other Tournaments. New tournament have continued to spring up throughout the 1980s, inspired by the growth of sevens in general and the success of the Taupiri Sevens in particular: club sevens in New Zealand appears headed for a new era.

Select-side. The first Inter-Provincial Seven-a-Side Rugby Tournament was held in 1975; the winner was Marlborough.

From 1977 until 1981 the Provincial champions represented New Zealand at the Hong Kong Sevens. In fact, in 1978 the tournament date was moved from October to March, thus providing a timely path from New Zealand to Hong Kong.

In 1983, the first year that New Zealand competed as a national team in Hong Kong, the format of the provincial championships was changed from eight teams to four regions of preliminary rounds, with eight teams competing in the finals. Since that time, this tournament has been the selection vehicle for the New Zealand team to compete in the Hong Kong Sevens.

In 1987 the tournament format changed again; currently the tournament takes place over two days, with a modified version of the Hong Kong format: 28 teams, with Cup, Plate, Bowl and Shield champions.

The provincial championship has not only provided the platform for New Zealand's success at the Hong Kong and Sydney Sevens, but also provided the opportunity for many a future 15s' All-Black to first "show his stuff."

Sevens in Australia

Sevens goes back an unspecified number of years, but in the early days was generally seen as a social event, enabling a number of clubs to come together for an afternoon's entertainment, away from the competitive side of the traditional game.

Kioma Club, in a seaside town some seventy miles south of Sydney, instituted the first regular Australian sevens' tournament in 1971. It has become so successful that the number of teams wanting to play always exceeds the spots available.

The other significant domestic tournament in Australia is held in the Brisbane suburb of Redcliffe. Kioma and Redcliffe are the principal events from which the Australian sevens' teams are selected for Hong Kong.

The participation of Australia in the first international sevens' tournament, in Scotland in 1973, provided an impetus to play the game seriously. John Howard, the manager of the Australian team came back convinced that the game needed to be considered seriously for itself, and not just an adaptation of 15-man rugby, and brought this conviction back to his home club of Randwick.

Randwick, by taking Howard's advice, has garnered a long list of championships, most recently the specially prized Melrose Sevens, in 1990. In addition, Randwick has placed many players on the Australian sevens' side.

Australia was an original participant in 1976 at the Hong Kong Sevens, and has always sent its best possible team. At this writing, it shares with Fiji the distinction of being a five-time champion at Hong Kong: between them, they have won 10 of the first 15 Hong Kong Sevens.

Australia also contributed to international sevens with the Sydney Sevens, staged from 1986-1988 by the NSW Rugby Union, and in 1989 by the ARU, but currently in limbo. This tournament is described in detail elsewhere.

Currently there is no specially designated selection vehicle, for picking the Australian national sevens' side. Although the coaches favor such an event, the treasurer feels the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Nevertheless, because of the general aptitude of Australians to enjoy ball-handling sports of all descriptions, it is certain that there will be continued support for the sevens' concept.

Sevens in Fiji

Although the Melrose historian dates sevens in Fiji as early as 1920, Fijian officials all agree that the sport was not played on a regular basis until the advent of the Hong Kong Sevens in 1976.

Nevertheless, rugby is the national sport of Fiji, and the "sandlot" variety of the game very much resembles sevens. Fiji coach Kitione Tuibua notes that

A Fijian boy, as soon as he starts to run, the first game he plays is rugby. That's where he gets his passing skills, his catching skills, his kicking skills ??? as soon as he's ready to have a ball ??? old clothes and tie them together and use them as rugby balls.

The game is one-handed touch, and it doesn't really matter how many are on a side:

They'll start with two on each side, and just keep increasing the numbers as the boys come in.

Fijian announcer Graham Eden notes that this type of game is typically held at the end of the working day between two villages:

It's a village side against a village side, no limits, no minimums, no maximums: it could be 2

against 2, it could be 50 against 50. And on that basis, when the end of the day comes it's time to play. When it's time to play, they go find a ball, they play with the ball. If they can't have a ball, they've got a coconut, can't find a coconut, they've got a plastic bag, haven't got a plastic bag, they've got a box, anything that will float and that will travel from person to person.

You drive through anywhere in Fiji, the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether it's winter or summer, they get out and they throw a missile around. If it's a ball, good luck. If it's not a ball, it doesn't matter. They're there to have fun.

Sevens is fun. And it developed naturally from touch rugby in Fiji.

Now, however, given the increased importance of sevens in Fiji, the sandlot game has been augmented by official sevens' tournaments, which begin in October and continue until March. From October until February these are all club tournaments, whereas early March marks the provincial tournaments that will culminate in the national team.

Sevens in Canada

The Melrose historian's documentation of sevens in Vancouver in 1930 predates any information still extant in the archive of the CRU itself. The CRU's historian, Doug Sturrock, notes that sevens was not considered a serious form of rugby until the 1950s, therefore no records were kept.

Sturrock reckons, however, that sevens continued on a sporadic basis through the 1930s and 1940s.

Despite Vancouver's apparent pre-existence, they have to share the honor of the first recorded event with the Ontario Sevens. 1953 was the inaugural year for the Ontario Sevens, won by the Toronto Barbarians. If it then occupied the July time period that it does now, it predated Vancouver's Spray Cup by 2 months.

Currently, there are several sevens' tournaments in British Columbia, at least one major tournament in Ontario, and "probably" in other provinces as well; sevens remains largely undocumented in Canada.

International Sevens' Tournaments

Edinburgh, 1973.

The first sevens' tournament to feature national teams was held in Scotland in 1973. Once again, as in 1883, the Scots were to lead a trend, although it was viewed as a curiosity at the time: the inside front cover of the program was an advertisement for Peter Scott Knitwear, featuring a man and woman in sweaters, looking amazed and accompanied by the caption: "International Seven-a-Sides. What next?"

A.W. Wilson, the president of the SRU at the time, however, had an inkling of what was to follow:

It seemed most appropriate to us, in our Centenary Year, that we should pay some regard to a part of the game which has proved exhilarating and entertaining to us. One might say, a part of the heritage of Scotland and, of course, especially the Borders. An international Seven-a-Side Tournament was the answer. All the countries taking part were and are thrilled at this prospect.

Who knows what this might lead to in the future. Seven-a-Sides with its open play and continual change of tempo and situations, the opportunities for individual skills, whilst still retaining the essential team spirit and combinations which will always be this game of ours, is giving increasing numbers of both players and spectators in many countries increasing pleasure and excitement.

It seems so ironic, then, that the SRU seems now to be lukewarm at best in its support of the sevens' game.

The International Seven-a-Side tournament was its simple designation, and it was held on April 7, 1973, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Scottish Rugby Union. All the International Board countries were represented, except South Africa, which did, however, get several players on the eighth side in the tournament, the President's VII.

At the end of the round-robin phase, the standings were as follows:

Pool 'A'Pool 'B'
Ireland 3-0 England 3-0
New Zealand 2-1 Wales 2-1
Scotland 1-2President's VII 1-2
Australia 0-3France 0-3

Looking back from today's perspective, those were odd results indeed.

Ireland missed being the first world sevens' champions by a hair. In injury time, and in the England 22, Fergus Slattery needed only to hold on to the ball to preserve an 18-16 win. Instead, he let loose an errant pass, enabling England speedster Keith Fielding to run in the long try.

Loughborough Colleges' Fran Cotton was the captain of the championship English team; Keith Fielding and Andy Ripley led the English scoring in the finals; Ireland's Mike Gibson was selected the tournament's outstanding player.

Sydney 1986 ==> ??.

As part of the 200th anniversary of Australia, the NSW Rugby Union put on a three-year international sevens' event, held at Concord Oval in Sydney in the spring of each year. Although intended to end after the 1988 Bicentennial, the Sydney Sevens were revived in 1989, not by New South Wales, but by the Australian Rugby Union itself. Their plans in 1989 were to keep it as an annual event to kick off the Australian rugby season. As of this writing, however, the future of the event is unclear, and it was not held in 1990.

Ken Elphic, the man behind the NSW tournament, noted that Australia was a fairly difficult market for the game of Rugby Union, given the competition with other sports.

Sevens provided a possible avenue to get more people into the seats: "I think in this country sevens certainly has the potential to develop into its own promotional entity. It's highly attractive, it's very skillful and it's fast."

Sydney was able to get Wales (1986, 1988, and 1989), England (1986), France (1987 and 1988), and Scotland (1988) into its tournament, something that Hong Kong has not yet achieved. Elphic commented "The difference between ourselves and Hong Kong is that . . . Australia is a member of the International Rugby Football Board and without being derogatory to Hong Kong, they have a magnificent tournament, I think that we operate on a different level."

One assumes that by "different," he meant "higher." Without being derogatory to Elphic, however, in terms of an event -- the competition itself was probably tougher in Sydney, at least in the first 3 years of the tourney -- the Sydney Sevens was definitely on a lower level than Hong Kong. In particular, the crowds were not only smaller, but less enthusiastic and far more partisan.

The 1986 Sydney Sevens marked New Zealand's first ever defeat of Australia in sevens; their 32-0 win in the finals was particularly surprising in that they had lost to Wales in a preliminary round. The other big story that year was Spain's stunning 24-6 upset of England.

After the inaugural tournament, Elphic commented that Sydney would "most definitely not" establish a Plate bracket ("people in our country don't want to watch losers play football"). During the 2nd and 3rd years of the tournament, however, there was in fact a Plate bracket, and in both years some of the most exciting rugby came during the Plate finals (W.Samoa v. US in 1987 and especially Spain's great victory over Argentina in 1988).

After NSW's three-year commitment ended, the Sydney Sevens were revived in 1989 by the Australian RFU. Put together at the last minute, the tournament was renamed the Toohey's international Sevens after its new sponsor. Only eight teams were invited, but the integration of a club side bracket (the top eight Sydney teams participated in their own bracket in matches intertwined with the international matches) made for an interesting spectacle.

The big news of the 1989 Toohey International Sevens was Western Samoa's march to the finals. Seeded 7th, the Samoans knocked off higher seeds Argentina, the US, and Fiji, and led New Zealand 10-0 before succumbing, 26-16 in an exciting final. One other surprise was the upset of Wales by the supposed "B" side of the US (the "A" side having been sent to Hong Kong), the first victory of any sort by the Eagles over an IRB nation.

Cardiff 1986.

On May 16-17, the Sport-Aid International Sevens was held in Cardiff. Eight teams -- Wales, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Australia, New Zealand, and a combined Fiji/Japan side -- competed. It was hoped that this 2-day event, sponsored by British Airways and the Welsh Development Fund, would result in a huge crowd and raise in the vicinity of half a million dollars to benefit African famine relief.

Unfortunately, terrible weather kept the final day crowd to 5000, and the amount of money raised was closer to $100,000.

The first day featured two pools of four, with the top two in each bracket advancing to the finals. The first day's results:

Division A Division B

1. New Zealand 3-0 1. Australia 3-0

2. England 2-1 2. Fiji/Japan 1-2

3. Scotland 1-2 3. Ireland 1-2

4. France 0-3 4. Wales 1-2

New Zealand defeated Fiji/Japan 24-12 to reach the finals, where they met England, a surprise 18-10 winner over Australia. Following in the footsteps of their earlier demolitions, New Zealand put a 32-6 lickin' on the English.

Sicily, 1990.

The first annual Sicilian international sevens were held on June 2-3, 1990, and attracted 16 teams from around the world, including "invitational" sides representing Wales, Ireland, and France.

Although there were organizational problems with the event, and small crowds, the quality of the rugby was excellent.

Fiji and Samoa, despite starting out in the same bracket (and being participants in that game in the worst rugby brawl that most people will ever see), both reached the finals: Fiji defeated an excellent Irish team, and Samoa defeated a surprisingly good Italian team.

The closeness of their 22-22 bracket match was not duplicated in the final; Fiji, after trailing 9-0, went on a tear and defeated Samoa 34-9.

The Soviet Union fielded an excellent team that won the Plate championship, losing only to Fiji and Samoa in its 6 games of the tournament.

The organizers of this event hope to make it an annual event, but only time will tell if it will survive.

Future International Sevens' Events: A Sevens' World Cup!

Hong Kong remains the only international sevens' tournament that seems assured of long-term survival. Although the future of the Sydney and Sicily tournaments is shaky, other promoters continue looking to establish new venues for international tournaments, and we have not heard the last of the international sevens' explosion.

Perhaps the most exciting recent announcement was the IRB's commitment to a regular World Cup of Sevens. to be held every four years, this sevens' world cup will premiere in Scotland in 1993.

Although Southern Hemisphere people grumbled about what seemed an attempt to steal some of Hong Kong's thunder, the announcement is welcome news to those that have long touted sevens' future.

Hong Kong has shown the potential of such events; and even as other sites, and other organizers, appear to share in the sevens' wealth, Hong Kong will no doubt, for many, many years to come, remain the king of sevens.

Nothing could be finer!