Sir Winston Churchill is often credited with the phrase“rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen.”
The sport has come a long way since its upper-class roots and is now one of the most popular team sports across the world. The sport has a major foothold in the majority of commonwealth nations but recently rugby has begun to see growth into previously untouched markets of Japan and the U.S.
In the U.S., rugby is now the fastest-growing sport in the nation. Part of rugby's success has been the ability for potential players to participate in multiple trimmed down versions of the sport such as rugby league and sevens.
However, due to the recent events Mike Friday (@MikeFriday09), head coach for USA Sevens, fears the future of rugby sevens unless big businesses are encouraged to become involved in the sport.
Rugby Sevens can trace its origins back to 1883, where it was conceived in the Scottish border town of Melrose.
At the time the local Melrose Rugby Club was experiencing financial difficulties and in an attempt to raise much-needed funds, decided to organize a local sports day.
Concerned with the potential financial outlay involved with organizing a traditional game with 15 players on each team, it was suggested to cut down the players to seven. This would mean that the teams would now feature three forwards, two half-backs, and two backs. They also decided to change the playing time of games to 15 minutes, made up of 2 halves of 7 minutes, with a one minute half time break.
Seven local rugby clubs signed up for the first tournament, at the now famous Greenyards Ground. The leading clubs in the district, Gala and Melrose, reached the final, which ended in a draw after 15 minutes of play.
The popularity of the first tournament saw sevens spread quickly across the Scottish borders region. From here the game would spread across to other areas of the British Empire.
It would be until 1973 until there would be an official international sevens tournament. That year the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) invited international teams to a tournament to celebrate the organization's centenary year. England would eventually prevail by beating an Irish team in the final at Murrayfield.
After seeing the opportunity of hosting an international version of the game, the Hong Kong RFU created the idea of an annual tournament, with the inaugural event being played in 1976. Which led to the World Rugby Sevens Series a 10 tournament circuit, held across the world each year.
After World Rugby successful launch of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, the SRU proposed Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in 1993. The winner would receive a trophy modeled after the original Melrose Cup.
Since 2009 the sport now stages both men's and women's world cup competitions side by side, most recently in San Francisco, in 2018.
Rugby Sevens gained even greater heights when it officially became an Olympic sport at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Despite seeing increased attention from fans, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the sports relationship with sponsors.
This has led to the rugby unions for England and Wales deciding to suspend their Sevens programs. Furthermore, Australia and New Zealand have canceled the World Series events they where set to host in January 2021.
Friday told The Rugby Paper“I don’t know whether the decision to scrap the England and Wales sides is strategic to try and force through a Team GB, but I’m gutted for their players because they’re caught in the middle and just want to play at the highest level they can.
“One thing I am sure about is that Sevens still has a purpose, whether it’s at the pinnacle of rugby in a country or part of a nation’s pathway. It’s the only form of the game that can truly represent global populations and give every country an opportunity to be world-class, win an Olympic gold medal or compete at a Sevens World Cup.
“That’s just not possible in 15s so it’s about creating a Sevens model that is sustainable and works not only for the traditional tier one nations but for developing nations in Asia, the Americas and Pacific islands.
“What the current situation highlights is the fact that we need to think differently. We need to recognise that we have a fantastic product but if we don’t innovate, develop it and evolve it to suit the modern markets, it’s going to die, which would be tragic.”
Friday explained, “For me, private partnerships would be an innovative way of thinking about it. What we have in the World Series are ten global cities which are hugely attractive corporately – and business still needs to happen, even in the current Covid-19 climate.
“If countries would consider pulling their Sevens programmes to one side so they’re not conflicted by existing partnerships and we could build a commercial model along the lines of what Team Sky did in cycling, together with what goes on in cricket’s IPL, we’d have a winner.
“If you look at the competition model of Formula One, as another example, there’s lots of scope. Let’s dream and say our Sevens teams were called Amazon USA, Red Bull Team GB or Renault France, you’re creating something that is very attractive and also means we can reposition our Sevens product on digital media broadcasting channels.
“If you think about what firms like Amazon invest in global marketing, Sevens would be a drop in the ocean for them but the returns could be enormous. For £4m-£5m-a-year they’d have a team that operates in the biggest cities in the world and would bring greater exposure, which would allow us to grow Sevens into something big.
“It doesn’t need to compete with 15s, it can complement it – the emergence of Caleb Clarke in New Zealand shows that it can be a powerful part of the pathway.”
Gambling with the Future
One potential option for the sport is to review their current approach with the sports betting industry.
Friday states, “Spectators today want fast-moving, impulsive actions in sport with lots of different outcomes and they want to dive in and out – Sevens gives you all of that and more and it’s the perfect vehicle to hit global markets in a vastly crowded sporting landscape.
“Gambling is a huge part of sport now and people love to try and work out the outcomes. It’s massive in football yet rugby barely scratches the surface. Why?
“Nobody had heard of IPL cricket a decade ago yet now it’s one of the biggest gambling markets in world sport. It’s going to take radical thinking in rugby but there are still huge opportunities in Sevens.”
With Sevens at a crossroads within the British Isles, Friday has another radical suggestion.
He added, “Why not call them the British Lions 7s and just rename it Team GB for the Olympics? The Lions could compete in the World Series, which would then allow England, Wales and Scotland to align with Rugby Europe and tie in with the collegiate seasons.
“That would keep costs down for the RFU, WRU and SRU while the Lions would attract a huge sponsor. There are big possibilities, it just needs open minds.”