In 1883, the pair devised a novel mini-format of the 15-a-side game to raise funds for their Borders club, Melrose RFC.
Today, it’s a truly international code, packing stadiums with its nine-stage IRB World Series – which hits Twickenham in London on May 11-12 – and preparing for its debut on the biggest stage of all, the Olympics. And before that is the World Cup in Moscow in June and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Sevens is a novelty no more.
Just like the full form, New Zealand are the benchmark in sevens, with a commanding lead in the World Series. But it’s been consistency rather than dominance that has put them there. There have been six winners in the seven tournaments so far this season in Australia, Dubai, South Africa, New Zealand, the US, Hong Kong and Japan.
The only side to have won twice is second-placed South Africa, who beat the Kiwis both times in the final. But in making the final four times and not finishing lower than third, the All Blacks are sitting pretty going into May 4-5’s Glasgow Sevens and the series finale in London the following week at the home of rugby.
“We’ve had a pretty good season,” says All Black back Tim Mikkelson. “I suppose we’ve been the most consistent team in all the tournaments, but it’s been anything but smooth sailing for us. There are teams who’ve won one tournament but then not made the cup play-offs in the next one. Anyone can win any game, and that’s great for the sport.”
When Mikkelson says anyone, he means nations few would associate with the upper echelons of rugby. While the flair of Fiji has always been strong, the likes of Kenya and Canada are now in the reckoning.
The World Series’ top points scorer for the season is Canada’s Nathan Hiramaya. In the New Zealand tournament the hosts were relegated to third while England and Kenya fought out a tight 24-19 final.
No fluke for the Africans, they made the third and fourth play-off in Hong Kong only to lose to the All Blacks.”A lot of countries, a couple of years ago, you would have called them minnows, but now they’re forces on the IRB circuit,” Mikkelson says.
London Sevens is a rugby party fest
Along with the All Blacks and Proteas, Fiji, Samoa, France, Kenya, Wales and Argentina are all ranked above traditional giants Australia and England. Canada, Scotland and the United States aren’t far behind. Inclusion in the Olympics, announced in 2009, has taken the growth of sevens as a code to a new level, significantly because it’s made it a magnet for government funding in countries that wouldn’t normally think twice about rugby.
“With the Olympics comes more and more resources for the sport in those countries,” Mikkelson says. Even in rugby-mad New Zealand, he says sevens now gets “a lot more help”.
Purists may argue the point, but the code that used to be either a summer amusement or a chance for skillful speedsters to show their wares off to potential pro sides or international selectors, in addition to their 15-a-side performances, is now a legitimate career opportunity. Winger Julian Savea is an exception to the rule, starring for the under-20s sevens All Blacks before joining the ranks of Richie McCaw’s world champions.
“But with the Olympics and Comm Games, a lot of the youngsters starting out can see that there could be a future in the sevens and are keen to stay around and play for a medal,” Mikkelson says.
Canada’s Nathan Hirayama
A potential taste of Olympic glory must be an enticing factor for young athletes deciding on their future, too, with league and union fighting for signatures. “It’s the biggest stage in the world, so I’m sure they’re eyeing it off,” Mikkelson adds.
A NZ Rugby strategy document read by TNT makes scary viewing for other nations – their long-term goals demand no less than back-to-back World Cup victories for the 15-a-side All Blacks and two gold medals (for the men and women’s sevens teams) in Rio de Janeiro 2016.
It’s not highlighted, but the Commonwealth Games will be high on the agenda too, though they’re probably sick of winning that – in an aberration for the worldly sport, all four times sevens has been in the Queen’s games the All Blacks have won gold.
So unlike McCaw’s All Blacks, who finally broke a World Cup hoodoo at the last championship to beat France in the final, the sevens boys know all about big tournament success and don’t feel the same kind of pressure.
Kenya’s Eden Kochieng Agero
When they go to the World Cup in Moscow, they will hold the World Series title, barring a spectacular flop in the final two tournaments of the season. They’ve also won the World Cup before – however, that was in 2001. Confidence minus the cockiness is how Mikkelson says his team is approaching it.
Much more in keeping with the theme of sharing the glory around, Fiji is the only team to have won the World Cup twice since it began in 1993. Wales, the defending champions, and England are the other winners. Surprisingly absent are Australia and South Africa.
“There are a lot of teams who can win the World Cup and all of the other tournaments, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Mikkelson says. “We’re considered favourites, but any of those teams in the top five at the moment could win it.
And then you can’t discount teams like Kenya or Canada, they’ve got a lot of guys who just played the 15-a-side World Cup, so they’re gaining experience all the time. Every year they’re getting better and better.
“You have to play every game like it’s a final now.”
England’s Dan Norton
Sevens sure to shine: Finale at home of rugby
Excitement machine Dan Norton will be a star attraction as England look to end a disappointing IRB World Series on a positive note at Twickenham. The sevens roadshow reaches the home of rugby on May 11 and 12 with New Zealand leading the series.
Despite winning the title in New Zealand, England have flopped elsewhere to be ranked 10th. “There’s such a fine line between success and failure in sevens, but we’ll be bringing our best,” the Gloucestershire-bred flyer Norton promises.
Last year’s London Sevens attracted 110,000 punters, who embraced the party atmosphere, but also enjoyed the height of sevens speed and skill. Sales are already up 20 per cent on last year, the IRB says. “The game’s on an upward curve, it’s so much fun to come and watch with a carnival atmosphere, but also really high level, competitive rugby,” Norton says.
HSBC World Series – London Sevens, Saturday, May 11, and Sunday, May 12. Twickenham Stadium TW2 7BA irbsevens.com; rfu.com