I have posted previously upon the parlous state of rugby union’s finances, e.g. the negligible ‘profitability’ of English Premiership clubs and the fact that too little of the RFU’s healthy revenues is shared out to grassroots clubs and far-flung former bastions of the formerly amateur game – that is, compared to football’s – at a time when World Rugby is embarked upon an ambitious campaign to expand the game worldwide.
Rugby faces another dilemma which may be similar to that of another sport further down the line of adapting its purest and traditional form in the 21st Century in order to capitalise upon the age of the internet, the smartphone, the phenomenon of social media and the modern customers’ preference for easily-packaged, neatly tied-up and bite-sized ‘beginning, middle and end result’ all in a few hours entertainment.
I’m referring to cricket and its struggle to come to terms with the sudden explosion of worldwide interest in its one-day and T20 versions and the implication that this has (in England) for not just the county game but the very pinnacle of the sport – Test cricket itself.
Rugby’s equivalent of T20 is, of course, the Sevens version. Originally invented in Melrose in Scotland in the late 19th Century, it was devised a a means of getting fit, improving skills and simply having fun – it wasn’t taken seriously even by those who played it.
It was then universally regarded as little more than an introductory stepping-stone towards playing ‘the real game’, i.e. the 15-a-side version.
Subsequently, after the First World War, various administrators around the world took it a stage further by instituting annual tournaments, perhaps the most famous of which was the Middlesex Sevens which became a staple of the English rugby season – an end-of-term festival usually played in bright sunshine to crowds who’d come along in informal gear to enjoy some ‘hit and giggle’ rugby and a fun party atmosphere before ‘clocking off’ for their summer break from the game.
I can remember looking forward every May during the heady days of the 1960s when my parents took my brother and I to the Middlesex Sevens and first London Scottish and then the super-fit Loughborough Students VIIs dominated the tournament year after year.
Back then PA announcer Peter Yarrington delighted the sold-out crowds at Twickenham Stadium with his public-school-type jovial banter and – during the break between the semi-finals and the final (to give the players a chance to get their breath back) – the stewards used to kick ten or more balls into the pitch and perhaps two thousand or more spectators would climb over the hoardings to take part in impromptu 40-a-side games.
Not including me, of course – my parents wouldn’t allow me – but my brother and his pals regarded it as the highlight of the year as they ran up and down the pitch chasing the balls and imagining the future days when they would play on the hallowed turf for real.
Those days are long-gone now. It’s been decades since spectators were not just allowed but encouraged to invade the pitch and the Sevens game has moved on from the days when the London Scottish VII used to take up a grid position and literally walk (or stand stock still), passing the ball around, in a game of ‘cat and mouse’ until they could manoeuvre it into the hands of one of their flying sprinters in enough space to evade the defence and hare down the pitch to score at the other end.
In 2018 the Sevens version of the game has its own world circuit – many of its players are centrally-contracted and specialise only in the 7-a-side game. It’s now as different from the 15-a-side game as chalk from cheese.
And that’s the problem for World Rugby. There’s a very real chance that the sport could easily develop very rapidly around the world – the potential for expansion is potentially enormous (and therefore, of course, regarded as a ‘good thing’).
But if World Rugby still believes that Sevens will be merely an introductory ‘starter course’ towards convincing the world that the 15-a-side version is the ‘main’, it may be very much mistaken …
See here for a link to an article by Jill Scanlon that appears today, as the Commonwealth Games Rugby Sevens tournaments begin, upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN