SEVENS HISTORY: MELROSE AND MIDDLESEX – Part I
By Allyn Freeman
(Photo: Melrose 7s Field.)
Rugby Union traces its ancestry back to William Webb Ellis when he picked the ball up on the Close grounds at Rugby School in 1823. Eventually, the rowdy student versus student mass mob melee was reduced to twenty players, and, finally, to fifteen, the total since 1877.
And sevens rugby? What prompted some Scotsmen to bounce eight players off the pitch, reduce the time of play to seven-minutes a half, end with a twenty-minute final, and alter many other rugby rules? The answer: An emergency need of new monies to keep a rugby club solvent.
In the Scottish border town of Melrose, local players Ned Haig and David Sanderson conceived of the sevens idea in April 1886. Haig wrote of the special episode’s conception:
“Want of money made us tack our brains as to what was to be done
to keep the Melrose RFC from going to the wall. And the idea struck me
that a football tournament might prove attractive. But it was hopeless
to think of having several games in one afternoon with fifteen players
on each side. The teams were reduced to seven.”
The idea was simple; fewer rugby players competing in shorter timed games on a regulation pitch with similar scoring. It proved to be an inspired success. And serendipitously, it also proved to be a lot of fun for players and for fans.
The Melrose RFC Ladies Auxiliary presented a silver memorial cup, which was only awarded in that first contest. A celebratory evening ended the 1886 event.
Scottish Border Sevens
The first Melrose tournament attracted seven clubs located in Scotland near the boundary adjoining England. The location would give rise to the sport’s early designation as “border sevens.” The initial teams were Gala, Selkirk, St. Cuthbert’s Hawick, Earlston, Melrose, Gala Forest, and St. Ronan’s Innerleithen. Melrose won the event, the first of its twelve triumphs. Hawick has recorded 28 wins, Gala 15, and Watsonians 10.
Sevens’ popularity spread throughout Scotland, starting in Aberdeen in 1889, Edinburgh in 1896, and Glasgow in 1898. From that initial invitational in 1886, more than 150 sevens events have been held in Scotland. In 1896, the northern English club in Tynedale was the first non-Scottish side to win the event. Rosslyn Park would be the second English winner but not until 1951. Victorious champions have come from South Africa, Ireland, France, Australia, and New Zealand.
The 133rd Melrose tournament took place in April 2022 featuring 24 entrants. The British Army side defeated the Samurai RFC 26-14, a unique team that only plays sevens worldwide. In the semi-finals, the Army defeated Currie and Samurai beat Melrose. Again, Scottish teams dominated the event. Belgium sent over a representative side..
The Middlesex Sevens
The English Rugby Football Union continually rejected attempts to introduce a sevens version into England. The concept of rugby as a “festival” or fun tournament was abhorrent to the purists. Also, the RFU frowned upon English Clubs – even northern border sides – from participating in the annual Melrose affair. The RFU quibbled additionally about the authority of the Scots to codify a separate set of new rugby laws for the improvised sevens version.
In 1921, Dr. Russell-Cargill, a member of the Middlesex RFC, realized he could raise monies for Middlesex Hospital by organizing a charity sporting event utilizing the Melrose Sevens rugby format. When the tournament was announced, a surprising forty-nine English clubs, most calling metropolitan London home, applied for entry. Preliminary offsite matches reduced the competition number to a workable sixteen team bracket.
The participants that year included a historic who’s who of English clubs: Hospitals: London, St. George, St. Mary’s, Kings College, Rugby Clubs: Richmond, Wasps, Harlequins, London Welsh, London Scottish, London Irish, Blackheath, Rosslyn Park, Saracens, and Old Boys: Old Blues, Old Merchant Taylors. Old Haberdashians, Old Halleyburians.
Twickenham stadium was selected as the setting of the Middlesex final matches. It proved to be a brilliant decision, instantaneously bestowing sanction on sevens as a bona fides and genuine from of rugby. Over the years, many thousands of ruggers experienced the thrill of a lifetime playing in Twickenham via participation in the Middlesex event.
Harlequins won that first tournament, defeating St. Mary’s Hospital. The Quins would go on to win the event – now called the Middlesex Charity Sevens – in 1927, 1928, and 1929, until the skein was broken in 1930 by London Welsh. The historic results indicate the following multiple winners: Harlequins (14), Richmond (9), London Welsh (8), London Scottish (7), Wasps (5), and Loughborough University (5).
When Rugby Union turned professional in 1995, there was no longer a reason to exclude Rugby League clubs from competing in the Middlesex tournament. In 1996, Wigan (RL) beat Wasps in a memorable final that filled Twickenham. (YouTube: Wigan v Wasps, 1996 Middlesex Final). In 2002, the Bradford Bulls (RL) outclassed Wasps 42-14 for a second League victory.
The Middlesex Sevens was last contested in 2011, after which the English Premiership began its own Rugby 7s series, two years after the International Olympic Committee added rugby sevens to the 2016 Brazil Olympics for women and men.
In 1926, Dr. Russell-Cargill proudly announced the initial Middlesex Sevens event raised a sizable sum of £1,621.