A rugby club based in the Scottish Border town of Melrose was experiencing some financial difficulties and, hoping to raise some much-needed funds, the committee decided to host a Sports Day at the end of the 1883 season.
Upon hearing about the fast-approaching Sports Day, local butcher, David Sanderson, and his apprentice, Ned Haig, proposed cutting the teams from the traditional 15 players to a more cost-effective seven. The sides would consist of three forwards, two half-backs and two backs and the playing time would be reduced to 15 minutes in total (two halves of seven minutes each and one-minute half-time break). Eager to keep the costs of the event as low as possible, the Melrose Rugby Club committee agreed unanimously to hold a Rugby Sevens tournament – blissfully unaware of the true significance of their decision.
Seven Scottish Border rugby clubs took part in the event held on in April 1883 at the now famous Greenyards ground. Sanderson, not content with merely coming up with the idea for the event, captained the home team to the final where he scored the match-winning try.
While he celebrated with his team afterwards, this small-town butcher likely had no idea that this little charity event would give rise to one of the fastest growing Olympic sports in modern times.
While Rugby Sevens quickly took off in the Scottish Border towns, it would have to wait 38 years to catch on in other countries. In 1921, two sevens tournaments were held outside Scotland for the first time, with the North Shields Sevens (England) and Buenos Aires Sevens (Argentina) making their debuts.
The game continued to grow, particularly in England, with the first international Sevens tournament taking place in 1973. The Scottish Rugby Union (SRU), celebrating its centenary, hosted the International Seven-A- Side tournament and gave the first real indicator of the true potential of the game.
A team from England emerged victorious from a field that included sides from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and France.
HONG KONG SEVENS
Three years after the SRU’s successful International Seven-A- Side tournament, the inaugural Hong Kong Sevens took place, which was to become the first regular Sevens tournament in the world. The story goes that ‘Tokkie’ Smith – the then Chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Union – had been in the stands at the SRU Centenary Sevens tournament and was impressed by what he saw. By 1983 – exactly 100 years after Sanderson first coined the idea – the Hong Kong Sevens was a fixed event on the international rugby calendar.
RUGBY WORLD CUP
Thanks to the success of the Hong Kong Sevens and two 15-a- side Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991, the first men’s Rugby World Cup Sevens was hosted by Scotland in 1993. Since then, Hong Kong, Argentina, Dubai, and Russia have hosted the tournament, with the United States set to host a slightly altered edition in 2018. A women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens also began in 2009.
HSBC WORLD SEVENS SERIES
Thanks to the success of the Rugby World Cups, the first HSBC World Sevens Series took place in the 1999/2000 season. The annual series – which saw sides competing in cities across the globe – played an invaluable role in promoting the game.
Finally, 133 years after the shorter version of rugby was first played at a charity event in Scotland, Rugby Sevens made its official debut at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, having been almost unanimously accepted by the International Olympic Committee in 2009.
The inclusion of Rugby Sevens into the Olympics has sparked unprecedented financial and viewership growth, which is likely to continue in the coming years as the Blitzboks – and other international Sevens sides – prepare for the RWC Sevens in 2018 and the next edition of the Summer Olympics to take place in Tokyo, Japan.
As the sport continues to go from strength to strength, however, perhaps we should take a moment to thank one very creative Scottish butcher.