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Melrose and Middlesex: The First and The Biggest

The Melrose Sevens

The Scottish Borders

It is impossible to comprehend the totality of the Melrose Sevens without understanding the context within which it is played. Melrose is at the center of the Scottish Borders, perhaps the least populated area on the face of the earth to play world-class rugby.

Located in the southeast of Scotland, and approximately the size of Delaware, the Borders consists of rolling hills and valleys, moorland, farm country, rocky coasts, and picturesque fishing villages. One of the best salmon rivers in the UK, the Tweed, runs through the center of the region, "tracing," in the words of the Borders tourist board, "a silvery course from the hills to the sea." Besides farming and fishing, the Borders supports a large and famous textile industry.

The population of the entire region is minuscule: barely 100,000 inhabitants (i.e. the entire region of 1800 sq miles has fewer residents than live within the municipal borders of such metropolises as Boise, ID, Allentown, PA, or Livonia, MI).

Melrose has only slightly more than 2,000 residents, and of all the Border towns, only Hawick (17,000) and Galashiels (12,000) have populations greater than 10,000.

Despite the tiny population, Borders rugby thrives. With a total population that represents only 2% of the Scottish people, the Borders often provide more than half of the Scottish internationals. Melrose itself has provided 15 Scottish internationals, including current cap Keith Robertson, who has won the honor more than 40 times.

And they love their sevens in the Borders. There are six major 7s tournaments: four in April (Gala, Melrose, Hawick, and Jedforest), and two in August/September (Selkirk and Kelso). All draw large and enthusiastic crowds, and the players take them very seriously.


"What a glorious legacy Ned Haig and William Webb Ellis left, and it's a happy thought that clubs like Melrose realise their responsibility in upholding all wholesome in the game."

-- Cliff Morgan

"Melrose! For every Scottish youngster there has always been a mystical romanticism in the name of Melrose . . . To all rugby enthusiasts Melrose Sevens is the 'must' on the Sevens Calendar"

-- Sir John Orr

"When it is springtime, I think of Melrose and especially the second Saturday in April. . . Somebody may have left his heart in San Francisco but I, for one, left mine in Melrose."

--Keith Seaber

What is it in a small town like Melrose that can inspire comments such as the above?

It extends beyond the Sevens; Melrose is a rugby town through and through, and symbolizes just about everything that is good, not only about sevens, but about rugby in general. With 2200 inhabitants, it is by far the smallest town to be represented in the Scottish First Division. By hook or crook, it manages to remain in that first division year after year: in fact in 1990 it stunned everyone by winning the Scottish National Championship for the first time in its 103-year existence (and came within 10 seconds of defeating champion Randwick in the 1990 Melrose Sevens).

When I suggested, somewhat facetiously, on a recent visit, that Melrose must recruit every able-bodied male to play rugby from the day he learns to walk, I was informed that the suggestion was not to be laughed at. Rugby is Melrose's sporting lifeblood (rumor has it that playing soccer within the town limits is a capital offense -- and there are NO soccer fields in the town).


The genesis of the Melrose Sevens was discussed in the previous chapter. Fortunately, Melrose -- unlike its basketball counterpart, the Springfield YMCA -- did not become merely a footnote in the history of the game; it has remained to this day as one of the world's premier sevens' events.

It didn't take long for an English team to win at Melrose -- Tynedale did it in the fourth year, 1886 -- but it would be another 65 years before another team not from the Borders or Edinburgh would win again (Rosslyn Park, 1951).

In the years prior to World War I, Hawick dominated Melrose, winning 17 of the 32 tournaments contested. 27 of the 32 winners were Borders' clubs; besides Tynedale, only Watsonians (4 victories) broke the Borders' stranglehold.

In the 23 years between the World War I and World War II hiatuses, Edinburgh clubs won 13 times. Hawick, however, with seven victories, was again the most frequent winner.

Between 1946 and 1969, English clubs began to compete with the Borders and Edinburgh for area honors, with the split being 11 for Borders' clubs, 7 for Edinburgh clubs, and 6 to clubs from England (London Scottish (2), Loughborough Colleges (2), Rosslyn Park, and Cambridge University). Although less dominant, Hawick, with 5 victories, once again carried off individual honors.

It is interesting to note that London Scottish, which so thoroughly dominated the London area sevens' scene in the '60s, only managed to win two Melrose medals.

In the "modern era," 1970-90, the Borders' have once again dominated (13 victories out of 21). Surprisingly, however, Hawick represents none of those victories. The big Borders' winners have been Kelso (7 victories, their first ever coming in 1978) and Gala (5).

The Centenary Sevens in 1983 produced the first non-UK winners, the French Barbarians.

1990 marked the 100th playing of the Melrose Sevens, and Melrose may have started a trend when it invited Australian champion Randwick. Randwick thanked its hosts by winning the championship and laying claim to a mythical world club sevens' championship: not only did they soundly defeat regular Scottish champion Kelso in the final, but they (barely) defeated host Melrose, who had knocked off Northern hemisphere sevens' power Harlequins.

Melrose has won its own sevens nine times, but only twice in the last 40 years (1952 and 1975).

When asked about the "best" Melrose tournament, Jack Dun, who has been to more than 50 of them, pointed to the 1986 tournament, won by Kelso over the French Barbarians following two dramatic semi-finals (Kelso/Wasps and French/US Cougars): "the standard on that day was higher than any we've seen." That comment was made prior to the 1990 tournament: certainly David Campese's incredible last-second try to defeat Melrose in the semifinals of that tournament was one of the most dramatic finishes of any sevens' match that I've ever seen.

The Event

The Melrose Sevens is the most important single event, sporting or otherwise, in the town.

The combination of

Furthermore, with the spectators crowded to within a few feet of the touchline, the experience for the players is a special one.

On this day, the pub owners clear out their chairs and tables, take the pictures off the walls, open their doors, and make lots of money. Few pubs manage to shut the revelers off at precisely the silly British closing hour of 11 PM. The town is alive, and everyone enjoys themselves.

The format of the Melrose Sevens exists with the rugby fan in mind: there are sixteen teams in the tournament, which is single elimination: by the time the second game of the tourney is taking place, one team is already in the showers.

Furthermore, there is no substitution during the entire tournament. Except for injury, you finish the last game with the same seven that started the first. OK, if you're from a local Borders' club, but a bit painful if you're a member of an invitational side (e.g. American or Australian) and have to travel several thousand miles to participate -- and sit on the bench throughout the entire tournament.

How important is the sevens tournament as a serious rugby event? Les Allan, former Melrose and Scotland player, and ex-coach of the club, told me that "for others, sevens may be a light-hearted event to play at the end of the season. For us, a Melrose medal is second only to a Scottish cap." He went on to relate the story of how the Centenary champions, the French Barbarians, had left a few medals behind in the hands of some of the local damsels. "No Borders rugby player," he related with a smile that obviously hid a bit of anger, "would ever show that medal so little respect."

As a member of the US Cougars touring party to the Melrose 7s in April 1986, I was part of a particularly moving experience. Not only did the Cougars make it to the semifinals, where they lost a close and exciting match to the Racing Club of Paris, but our players actually received a rousing ovation from the crowd when they left the field after that loss. The fans were applauding them for their exciting play even in defeat, a fact that touched all the touring party deeply.

The Party

I certainly believe that "the party" is one of those events that must remain forever an integral part of rugby. It is clear that Melrose believes so as well.

The party following the Melrose Sevens reflects all that is good about the social aspects of rugby. Centered at the Melrose RFC clubhouse, it extends to every pub in the town, moves to private houses, and ends . . . well, usually before daybreak.


Melrose, Middlesex, and Hong Kong all take place in very different milieus. There is no question that Middlesex draws the largest crowds. Furthermore, it's hard to deny Hong Kong the status of the "greatest." Nevertheless, there's something very special, unique, and superlative about Melrose that's difficult to put into words. Even the three quotes at the beginning of the chapter fall short.

Melrose's Roll of Honor

The Middlesex Sevens


It has been duly noted, perhaps as a tribute to the constancy of rugby, that the Middlesex committee meeting that resolved to stage the sevens was held in a pub -- the Cock Tavern in London -- on May 14, 1925.

Dr. Russell-Cargill's idea to persuade the Middlesex Committee that a sevens tournament might be a good idea was based on the hope that it would foster relations between the big clubs of the game and the hundreds of "minnows" who clustered around the suburban areas of the metropolis. The Rugby Football Annual of 1926-7 remarked: "An innovation which, if followed up, may leave its mark deeply upon English rugby football was the Seven-A-Side tournament, organized on behalf of the Middlesex Hospital, and completed at Twickenham on 24 April 1926.

One of the prime movers of the original Middlesex Committee was star player Wavell Wakefield. Like Ned Haig before him, Wakefield not only helped organize the competition, but was a member of the original champions, the Harlequins.

15,000 people attended the first Middlesex Sevens, and although the champions were the Harlequins, some of the so- called "minnows" performed surprisingly well. The two semi-finals saw the Harlequins defeated Blackheath 15-5 and St. Mary's Hospital defeat the Old Merchant Taylors, 5-3. The score of the championship final was Harlequins 25, St. Mary's Hospital 3.

In the first year of its existence the Middlesex sevens, despite an admission charge of only one shilling [in 1926, $0.25], made 1600 [$8000], all of which was donated to charity, a tradition that would continue.

There have been several "eras" in Middlesex. The first decade belonged to the London-based Harlequins, winners of the first four tournaments in 1926-29.

During World War II, however, St. Mary's Hospital dominated: known as a rugby-playing hospital, St. Mary's attracted many applications from aspiring medical students who had shown rugby promise at school. Add to that a large number of medical students deferred from military service until completion of a lengthy course, and you get a formula for success in a Britain starved of home-based athletes during the war.

In the early 1960s, the London Scottish seven were regular champions, and 10 of the 11 championships between 1970 and 1980 were won by either London Welsh, Richmond, or Loughborough Colleges. The Harlequins were definitely the team of the 80s, repeating their 1926-29 streak in 1986-89 and going it one better with a fifth straight championship in 1990.

The Event

The entire "minnows" phenomenon continues to be a part of the Middlesex experience; in fact, the Middlesex Sevens can rightfully be said to begin two to three weeks prior to the Twickenham games: the Sevens' program itself lists the day's first round as the "6th round;" the first five comprise the whales through the minnows, in battle amongst each other in the preliminary rounds.

In 1988, for example, the first five rounds were held on Saturday, April 16, at eight grounds within Middlesex County. 36 teams each competed at Beckenham Ground, at Centaurs Ground, Osterley, at London Irish Ground, Sunbury-on-Thames, and at Old Pauline Ground, Thames Ditton. The following locations were host to 24 teams each: Old Millhillians Ground, Headstone Lane, Saracens Ground, Southgate, Upper Clapton Ground, Epping, and Wasps Ground, Sudbury.

At the end of the day, 12 teams (2 each from the 36-team sites, and one from the 24-team sites) qualified to enter the sixth round at Twickenham on May 7. The sixteen team field was filled out, as usual, by the previous year's winner and runner up as well as two invited teams; in 1988 those four teams were, respectively, Harlequins I, Rosslyn Park II, Bristol and Cork Constitution.

Although these preliminaries cannot compare to finals' day, they too share an end of season party atmosphere, and an opportunity for meeting old opponents and friends.

It is through this elaborate qualification process, then, that the occasional minnow gets into the finals at Twickenham and becomes the darling of the crowd. Occasionally they even win a game. Current sevens' chairman Derek Mann does not, however, remember any minnow getting beyond the 7th round (i.e. winning more than one game at Twickenham).

In 1988, four minnows -- Askeans, Old Beccehamians, Eton Manor, and Worthing -- reached Finals' Day. Fortunately for Old Beccehamians, they were in the same bracket as Eton Manor and won their first game. The others went out in the first (i.e. 6th) round. In 1989, Old Alleynians and West London Institute represented the minnows, unfortunately drawing runner-up Rosslyn Park and champion Harlequins in the first round and bowing out gracefully (West London Institute did manage, however, to score 10 points against the Harlequins.)

But enough of the preliminaries; it is finals' day that everyone remembers and cherishes.

Early in its existence Middlesex was already able to boast of being the largest 7s' tournament in the world: currently it is a complete sell-out on the Finals Day at Twickenham, with 60,000 in attendance.

According to Peter Yarranton, President of the Middlesex County RFU, "'Sevens Day' is Twickenham at its very best -- loud, enthusiastic and exciting, the very air electric with expectancy while waiting for the unexpected."

Quoted below are excerpts from a 1988 article by Stephen Pile. Although Pile's piece could be interpreted by some as doing a disservice to the event by downplaying the importance of the rugby itself, he nevertheless captures much of the spirit of the event and, perhaps for some people, its essence as well.

One of the less well-known occasions in the British social calendar, its ostensible purpose is to watch eight [sic] seven-a-side teams compete in the final knockout stages of the Russell-Cargill Memorial Cup.

In reality, however, it is the closest the British get to a carnival. . . .

At 6am, the fans start arriving in the car parks of Twickenham for this end-of-term bun fight. Dressed as if for the beach, paunchy middle managers, young blades and all sections of the middle class, set up chairs, tables, barbeques and diverse banqueting facilities. . . .

At 7:30am, the BBC was giving stern warnings to avoid the area completely. . . .

The first empty champagne bottle hit the bin at 8:15am and you could safely give away 5 pound notes to anyone without a beer can or a wine glass in their hand. "We've had breakfast three times already," said a red-faced Scotsman who had been driving all night, drinking since dawn and enjoying his twentieth successive visit to this great tribal gathering.

When the first game started, some weakened and went in to watch. By 12:30, however, the stadium was half full, but the car park was still packed.

In no time, the air was thick with barbecue smoke. No cans or bottles are allowed into the ground and this proved an insurmountable obstacle for many. However, the roar of the crowd adds a pleasing atmosphere to the wall-to-wall picnic that soon develops outside.

"Who won?" people ask from time to time.

The west car park is posher in character (champagne, the occasional boater and women with upturned collars) than the east (beer, women in tight tee-shirts and cries of "What a wally, eh" and "Give Darren his sausage"). . . .

At the end of the afternoon "revivers" were served in the car park and the final took place in the ground. And so the 1987-88 season came to an end, but the party went on and on.

The long-time chairman of the Middlesex Sevens, Barry Boyden, died in 1986, after contributing 28 years of hard and fruitful effort to the Sevens; certainly much of its success is owed to Boyden's efforts.

Boyden's successor, Derek Mann, was an extremely helpful and cooperative source of information for this chapter; without him it would have been most incomplete.

Middlesex's Roll of Honor