What is Sevens Rugby?

The game of Sevens was ostensibly invented as a way to play a rugby tournament in just one day.

As the name suggests, seven players take the field per side, and rather than the full 80-minute game, each match is just two seven-minute halves. The game is played at high speed requiring a different type of fitness to the 15 a-side code. The rugby rules have been tweaked slightly, such as three players in a scrum and sin-bins lasting just two minutes. Even so much of the original rugby game remains the same – players must pass behind them, remain onside, not fumble a ball forward, make tackles and compete for the ball at rucks. With only seven players spread across the field, attacking rugby usually bears fruit, with tries being plentiful. Players with the skill to beat their opponent find less cover defence and more opportunities. Individual brilliance is rewarded and the best teams usually have stars. Think of New Zealand’s Tomasi Cama and Fiji’s Waisale Serevi.

As a spectacle the modern game of Sevens has all a television audience demands – athleticism, point scoring and a multitude of sides that have the ability to win. Perhaps the hardest thing for television fans is being free to watch the 15 minutes that their team is playing.

Founding of Sevens – Melrose club in Scotland

The Melrose Football Club, in the town of Melrose, just south of the River Tweed in the part of Scotland known as the Borders, hosted the first Sevens tournament in 1883. The football tournament was the major part of a day filled with athletic competitions and entry tickets were sold. The day’s profits went to helping out the Melrose Football Club’s struggling finances.

Seven teams from the surrounding Borders district competed, and the home side, Melrose, won its own tournament. Not without controversy. In the final against Gala, after being tied nil-all at full time, it was decided to play another 15 minutes. Melrose scored a try after ten minutes and left the field to claim the cup. It is unclear from the reports if the referee ruled the game over, or if the Melrose players decided that was enough, or if exuberant spectators invaded the field.

The cup was known as the Ladies Cup, after the “Ladies of Melrose” had presented it as a prize for the winners.

Not to be outdone, Galashiels Football Club promptly organised their own Sports day the following year, 1884, and won their inaugural Sevens tournament.

The Sevens concept was both profitable and popular and soon teams from North England were playing. Within 10 years Sevens was being played in New Zealand.

In Scotland by the 1920’s there were eight regular Football Club Sports days running their Sevens competitions on a fixed Saturday of spring or autumn. In 1926 Middlesex Counties hosted their first sevens tournament – at Twickenham, London.

Scotland’s first International Sevens

The Scotland Rugby Union celebrated their centenary in 1973 and as part of the celebrations invited the eight member countries of the IRB to play in “The International Seven-a-Side tournament”. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union sent over a side made up of All Blacks.

New Zealand were knocked out of the competition after losing to Ireland and England then beat Ireland in the final 22-18. England could claim to be Sevens world champions, however it would be another 20 years before the IRB introduced an official Rugby World Cup for Sevens.

1973 N.Z. Sevens players who took part in the Scottish R.U. Centenary celebrations. Back: Ces Blazey, E.P. Dwyer, L.Colling, B. Holmes, A. Sutherland, G.R. Skudder, Byers, I. Vodanovich. Front: G. Batty, A. Wyllie, I. Stevens, D.A. Hales, A.I. Scown.

Sevens in New Zealand

The Dunedin Sevens Tournament began on 28 September 1889. It was played annually up to 1893, there was no tournament in 1894.

Christchurch had it’s first Sevens Tournament in 1893, it lasted just one year.

In 1894 Sevens were being played in Nelson and the Nelson Club, captained by All Black George Harper, won the Nelson Charity Tournament that year.

There’s nothing new about Sevens rugby, It’s been played seriously throughout New Zealand for years. A 1925 Manawatu tournament attracted teams from 28 clubs and schools, competing in senior, junior, third and primary school grades. Victoria University and the Wellington Club were among the entries.

Family teams were common. Future Prime Minister Keith Holyoake led the Holyoake VII to the Motueka senior title in 1930. The Fitzgerald’s of Ashburton won an open knockout competition against top teams from other centres in 1910. The eight Finlayson brothers of Northland (one All Black and four provincial reps) were a formidable combination in the 1920s.

Points Unlimited, Vol 2, No. 1, February 1995 “Sevens in New Zealand” by Bob Luxford.

New Zealand National Sevens

National Sevens tournaments started in Auckland in 1975 with eight unions, each having qualified in its region, taking part. Marlborough were the first winners, defeating Canterbury 25-11 in the final.

After moving cities a number of times, Palmerston North and Feilding became the regular host cities of the National Sevens holding 21 of the 29 tournaments up until 2004 when the event moved to Queenstown.

In 1987 the National Sevens began evolving with the Christchurch-hosted tournament attracting teams from almost every province in New Zealand and stretching to a two-day format.

Marlborough Rugby Team that won the inaugural national sevens in 1976. Back: D.W. Neal, B.P. Dwyer, J.H.M. Love, B.R. Ford, J. Davie. Front: D.J. Saul(manager-coach), S.W.P. Marfell, A.R. Sutherland(captain), K.R. Hodges(vice-captain), A.J. De Joux, B.A. Watt(selector).

Brian Paul Studio photo

The captains of all the 27 provincial rugby unions at the 1991 Palmerston North based Sevens

photo Manawatu Standard

Hong Kong Sevens

Sevens had spread around the world but appeared to languish in the years after World War II with the number of tournaments stagnating. No real enthusiasm for the Sevens game was apparent.

In the mid-1970s that started to change, partly due to the ability of teams to travel cheaply and quickly by air to overseas venues, and support by corporate sponsorship. In 1976 the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union hosted the first of its Sevens tournaments, sponsored by Cathay Pacific and Rothmans. The tournament attracted teams from around Asia and the Pacific. It was won by the Cantabrians from New Zealand 24-8 over the Wallaroos from Australia. The Hong Kong tournament rapidly became a favourite for fans across Asia and the Pacific, attracting huge crowds with its festival atmosphere.

By 1982, the sport had outgrown its original home at the Hong Kong Football Club and was relocated to the larger Hong Kong Stadium and as ticket demands regularly outstretched its capacity by the early 1990s, the stadium was redeveloped in 1994 to a 40,000-seat ground.

Taking pride of place on the Sevens calendar, Hong Kong’s event set the standard for world sevens.

Sevens tournaments played across the world in 1996 included Uruguay, Singapore, Fiji, Hong Kong, Scotland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, New York, Dubai, Taiwan, Germany, Denmark plus several other minor tournaments in Prague, Jerusalem, Jamaica, Memphis, Anchorage, Nassau and Bahamas. Points Unlimited, Vol 3, No. 1, March 1996 “Play Sevens. Everyone’s doing it” by Bob Luxford.

1983 First NZ Sevens Team

Up until 1981 New Zealand sent the sevens team that won the New Zealand Sevens tournament to the Hong Kong Sevens. In 1982 the New Zealand Rugby Union were asked to send a fully New Zealand representative side. However delays in selecting the side meant that either the Hong Kong Sevens invitation never arrived or the event was already full, and the side never went. In 1983 with a better-planned selection process and the side named soon after the conclusion of the Feilding-hosted New Zealand Sevens tournament, New Zealand’s first sevens specialist team played in Hong Kong. Although they conceded just four points in the tournament, they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Samoa. Future Sevens coach, Gordon Tietjens, was a member of the 1983 Sevens side.

Commonwealth Games

In 1998 Sevens were introduced to the Commonwealth Games. New Zealand won the final taking the gold medal and won each of the subsequent Games finals in 2002, 2006, and 2010. In 2014 South Africa won the gold medal, with New Zealand taking silver for the first time.

Rugby World Cup Sevens

In 1993 the International Rugby Board introduced the Rugby World Cup Sevens, played every four years, it was won in 1993 by England, 1997 Fiji, 2001 New Zealand, 2005 Fiji, 2009 Wales, and 2013 New Zealand who are the current holders.

HSBC Sevens World Series

(Previously the World Sevens Series)

A World Series was introduced in the 1999/2000 season. Teams were awarded points for their results at a series of tournaments played around the world. New Zealand won the first six World Series titles and twelve of the 15 Series in total. Other winners have been Fiji in 2005/06, South Africa in 2008/09, and Samoa in 2009/10.

Women’s Sevens

From 1998 until 2002 there was a national Sevens competition for women run in parallel with the men’s Sevens. Auckland won the inaugural competition, with Bay of Plenty, Wellington and Canterbury also winning tournaments.

Unofficial New Zealand Women’s teams had competed at the Hong Kong Sevens at least as early as 1997, winning the competition in 1997 and 1999.

In 2000 an official New Zealand Women’s Sevens team went to the Hong Kong Sevens for the first time. The tournament ran alongside the men’s competition with the women’s finals being played on the opening day of the men’s competition. New Zealand beat Australia in the final 36-10. The following year 2001, three tournaments were held in NZ, Hong Kong and Japan, with NZ winning all of them by large margins.

Women’s Sevens went into recess for a number of years before being reinvigorated when the IRB invited Women’s teams to compete at an international Sevens tournament in Dubai in 2009. In a qualifying tournament held in Samoa in 2008, New Zealand lost twice to Australia. At the Dubai event in 2009 Australia again defeated New Zealand, in extra time to claim the first official International Women’s Sevens title.

In 2012/13 the IRB introduced a Women’s World Series over four rounds played at Dubai, USA, China and Netherlands. The New Zealand Women’s Sevens won three of the four tournaments to claim the World Series prize, and in 2013 won the inaugural Women’s Sevens Rugby World Cup at Moscow.

In 2014 New Zealand Rugby signed 19 women’s Sevens players to contracts, making them the first women to play professional rugby for New Zealand.

Olympic Games

Sevens were played for the first time at the Olympics at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Fifteen-a-side rugby was last played at the Olympics in 1924, with USA winning the gold medal. Rugby was subsequently dropped from the Olympic schedule, in part due to the on and off-field violence that occurred at the 1924 final, and the low number of countries entering teams. (In 1924 only three nations competed). New Zealand men won a Silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the New Zealand Women won Silver medals in Rio and Gold medals in Tokyo.

All Black Sevens

In 2012 New Zealand Rugby rebranded the New Zealand Sevens as the All Blacks Sevens, to capitalise on the All Blacks brand and encourage more corporate sponsorship opportunities. It also encourages Sevens to achieve the same lofty standards as the All Blacks. Similarly the women's side are now known as the Black Ferns Sevens.