SEVENS HISTORY: NEW YORK 7S – Part III
By Allyn Freeman
The first seven-a-side tournament in the United States occurred in New York City during Thanksgiving of 1959. The New York RFC inaugurated the event where it would become known as the NY 7s.
American newspaper and magazine coverage of rugby was negligible in the 1940s and 1950s. The occasional reference might be a short article about the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match. There was a lack of awareness in the USA of even the existence of sevens since it was confined to venues in the UK.
The NYRFC represented the solitary NYC Metropolitan area club of a prior five total that returned to play after World War II. It continued to be administered by British ex-patriots, who welcomed new UK arrivals, some of whom competed in post-war events at the Middlesex and Melrose Sevens. In 1959, the club conceived of the idea of organizing a local tournament to showcase the emergence of rugby on the east coast.
First USA Sevens
The New York RFC became aware that during the Thanksgiving recess, eastern university students gathered in number to meet and party in New York City. It counted on this college influx to arrange the initial event. Eight teams (comprising six universities and one club) participated in 1959’s initial contest, with M.I.T. sending an “A” and a “B” squad.
The NYRFC realized that sevens with its shortened playing time could accommodate a rugby tournament of many teams. Van Cortland Park at the terminus of the #1 IRT subway in the south Bronx, afforded multiple pitches for the event.
It is unknown how the teams learned of the different rules governing never-before-seen rugby sevens, or if they even practiced the game before taking the field. The finals witnessed the two M.I.T. teams vying against each other for the 1959 title.
A year later in November 1960, New York 7s entrants doubled to 16-teams, an indication of the increase in just a year of colleges playing rugby in the east. Added to the tournament roster that year were Dartmouth (two teams), Penn, Wesleyan (two teams), Columbia (first rugby game ever played), Villanova, Manhattan, Brown, and also Montreal Irish.
This second year of the event received press coverage from the NY Times. That 1960 NY 7s marked the Times’s first rugby game article since 1940. Dartmouth beat Harvard 11-0 for the championship. The Big Green’s Tom Conger (’61) was signaled out as being the “fleet-footed stand-off-half who grabbed a loose ball and galloped 85-yards for the touchdown.” The uncredited sportswriter apparently did not know the correct rugby nomenclature for “try.”*
The popularity of the New York 7s tournament expanded exponentially, so that by1963, 45 teams entered. That year, the Times recorded the tournament winner with a rare rugby photograph and a long article by its financial reporter Bill Smith (Old Blue RFC and New York Athletic Club). The annual NY 7s event essentially ended the east’s fall rugby season.
Expansion of the NY 7s
The NY 7s tournament and its timing (Thanksgiving holiday week) proved to be perfect coming together of sport and social activity. Clubs and colleges along the eastern seaboard and Canadian visitors enjoyed both the spirited rugby and the Manhattan “destination” experience.
For the first two decades, sides from the USA dominated the event. The Old Blue RFC (former Columbia University grads) and the Manhattan RFC won titles frequently, the latter stacked with British and Irish ruggers who had played sevens abroad.
In 1967, the event moved to Randall’s Island situated below NYC’s Triboro Bridge. The final match was staged inside Downing Stadium on the Island, a 20,000 seat venue that previously welcomed rugby matches in the 1930s. It hosted the Metropolitan Union’s contest against touring Fiji in 1970, and also the USA Eagles Test match against Ireland in 1989.
By 1992, the NY 7s expanded to 84 sides (10 pitches total) when the tournament added play inside Central Park to the Randall’s Island location. The Central Park location drew crowds of local interest as many had never seen rugby before.
In 1993, the event introduced the Premier Division, won that year by Sydney University from Australia. By then, the tournament had emerged as the first-class sevens tournament in the USA, enjoying the same positive international reputation as Middlesex and Melrose. Top quality teams arrived yearly from the UK, South Africa, and other European countries.
The New York RFC welcomed its own women’s club side in 1997. Soon after, the NY 7s started a Women’s Division to accommodate the significant expansion of women’s rugby in the USA. In the 2000 event, Las Bandits, the women’s winner, starred MVP Huriana Manuel who earned a sevens rugby silver medal for New Zealand in the 2016 Olympic Games.
The Current Tournament
The November 2022 NY 7s marked its 63rd consecutive year. It is the oldest, continually played rugby tournament in the USA. The composition has changed over time with the inclusion currently of three Divisions: Women’s, Men’s, and High School for Girls and Boys. In addition, Canadian teams number more than fifty percent of the annual entrants.
It is a fine testament to the New York RFC that one its core missions is to stage and preserve this notable sevens event. The club should take deserved credit for its operational expertise that brings together the many participants. Kudos also, for the after-party celebrations.
In September 1976, by postal mail, I corrected Margaret Farrar, the long-time editor of the NY Times crossword puzzle, who erred unintentionally when she presented the clue: “Three point rugby score.” The answer was “try” but, by then, it had increased to four points. She wrote a note of appreciative thanks.