SEVENS HISTORY: PACE AND POPULARITY – Part II
By Allyn Freeman
For many decades, the end-of-season Middlesex and Melrose rugby sevens events garnered favorable media attention in England and Scotland. The tournaments were advertised as fun and crowd pleasing with fast action and abundance of tries.
For all intents and purposes, the early 20th Century play of sevens copied the same style as fifteen’s rugby albeit with eight fewer players on the same sized field. Teams kicked to touch or often kicked ahead instead of retaining possession.
In the early years of the 1960s, one player would change forever the way sevens was played. His name was Iain Laughland, an international flyhalf for Scotland (31 caps from 1959 to 1967 ) and, for many years, captain of London Scottish RFC, one of the premiere sides in England of long-standing,
Laughland introduced the radical idea that sevens needed its own, unique character of offensive play. In effect, the wide-open field had to be exploited to create gaps in the defense. The novel strategy to achieve this goal was to initiate pace into the attack. And the unorthodox way to set up the pace advance was to retreat slowly backward to move forward.
Before the 1961 Middlesex tournament, he drilled the London Scottish team to follow this unusual pace playing approach. Three of his Scotland XV teammates – all backs – played on that sevens side: Ronnie Thompson, Ken Scotland, and Jim Shackelton. A journalist described the innovative action that day at Twickenham:
“The winning London Scottish sevens weaved patterns of a kind beyond the scope
of Englishmen. The way in which they switched direction of the attack from
this side of the field to that made it look easy. It seemed they had all the time
in the world and never hurried until the vital moment presented itself.”
In the 1960s, London Scottish reached six consecutive Middlesex Sevens finals, winning five times. Laughland captained four of the victories. Sevens would never return to the old way of playing again.
No Pace. No Place
In 1965, London Scottish captured the Middlesex Sevens with Laughland at the helm. Two-time Scottish international, Charley Hodgson was the leading event scorer with two tries notched in the final. The side was favored to win that year’s Melrose Sevens, which it had last won in 1962.
Much to Hodgson’s surprise, he was not selected to start the first match of the Melrose event. He complained to Laughland. “Iain, Why am I a sub? I scored tries at Middlesex.” Laughland replied, “Aye, Charley, you do score tries, but, laddie, you have no pace.”
The Hong Kong Sevens
Ironically, three of the most important international sevens tournaments were founded primarily to generate income. The goal of the initial Melrose Sevens was to raise monies for the penniless club. Middlesex Sevens began as a charity fundraiser for the local hospital. Finally, the Marketing Manager of Rothman’s International Pan Asia division conceived of the idea of rugby event as a sponsor’s vehicle for the brand.
The tournament in its seven-a-side form appealed to the Hong Kong RFU, which, in 1976, invited seven Pacific nations, including, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Fiji. Soon, other Pacific Rim countries, like Western Samoa, Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Singapore, would also enter teams.
The regional airline Cathay Pacific acted as event co-sponsor, marking rugby’s first, significant commercial patronage. In that first 1976 contest, the event was won by the Cantabrians (NZ) 24-8 against the Wallaroos (Australia). As the popularity of the tournament spread, the event welcomed clubs and national sides outside of its Asian base.
The Hong Kong Sevens pioneered the way in which succeeding World Rugby Sevens events would be staged. The established modus operandi that other cities would emulate follows:
- A multi-day tournament (Three days in Hong Kong but two-days in most other venues);
- Invitations to sixteen teams, and 24 teams in Hong Kong only;
- Pool play (mainly, four) with eight teams advancing;
- A four-tier winners’ trophy groupings (e.g.; Cup, Plate, Bowl, Shield);
- Prize monies, eventually, reaching $150,000 for the winner;
- Fan festival area with food service and other vendor booths;
- Costume dress up, often in a dedicated section of the stadium; and,
- Post-game parties at city locations.
In the 1980s, the Hong Kong Sevens began to be televised around the world. It proved an instant viewing hit with sporting fans, offering, a quick paced presentation with lots of long runs and try scoring. The event moved into the spacious, 40,000 seat Hong Kong Stadium in 1994. Importantly, the tournament presented to the global television audience the never-before-seen jerseys of lesser rugby nations.
Rugby came to Fiji in 1884. It was sevens play, as first witnessed in the Hong Kong event, that put Fijian rugby on the map. The open style of sevens suited the tall and speedy Pacific Islanders with their spectacular passing and constant, in-support offense.
Fiji has amassed a total of 19 Hong Kong Cup wins, the most of any other nation. New Zealand is second with eleven. Fiji Men have won two Olympic sevens gold medals in Brazil 2016 and Japan 2020. The team featured dynamo Waisale Serevi, the first sevens super star.
(You Tube: Hong Kong Sevens Final 1991, Fiji vs. New Zealand.)