SO 177,000 people attended the four sessions of the Commonwealth Games Rugby sevens at Ibrox. That’s a remarkable figure, even if an unknown number doubled or trebled up, attending more than one session.
The SRU would be delighted if any season they sold a total of 177,000 tickets for three Autumn internationals – they’re probably quite happy if they sell 100,000. There may not be as many at the sevens when the Olympics are held in Rio in two years time, if only because Brazil hardly ranks as a rugby-playing country.
However it’s clear that sevens are now fully established internationally, and we should recognize that the IRB sevens circuit has become the chief and most effective means of spreading the game worldwide. Even though the final at Ibrox was contested by the two strongest rugby-playing countries, South Africa and New Zealand, the rise in the standard of other countries not previously associated with the game, Uganda being a prime example, was very evident. Countries outwith the Commonwealth, such as Portugal, have already made their mark in the short form, and it seems quite likely that some will choose to concentrate on it. It would be no great surprise if one or two of them were to do rather well in the Olympics.
We are already on the way to seeing a split in the game with a number of talented players choosing to be sevens specialists, some of them perhaps playing very little 15-a-side rugby. The final between New Zealand and South Africa was interesting in this respect. The All Blacks looked like 15-a-side players engaging for the time being in sevens. Some of the stars of the South African side, notably Seabelo Senatla and Cecil Afrika, are brilliant sevens specialists, who may never play 15-a-side international rugby. Though we have always said that playing sevens improves players’ skills and makes them better when they turn to the full game, the fact is that modern 15-a-side international rugby is on the way to being no longer a game for all sizes. Someone like David Johnston, that dashing Scotland centre of the early Eighties, would be deemed too lightweight for professional rugby today. He would be at least six stones lighter than some of the centres he would be required to mark. Lee Jones, who won four caps on the right wing in the 2012 Six Nations and was one of Scotland’s stars at Ibrox was more or less frozen out of Edinburgh because the club’s South African coach, Alan Solomons, prefers big wingers. Of course, from the days of Hawick’s famous Andrew Bowie onwards, there have always been some players more effective in the short game than the long one. Back in the Eighties John Rutherford reigned supreme as Scotland’s fly-half, probably the best we have ever had. But he wasn’t as good a sevens player as Andrew Ker, the mastermind of the great Kelso seven of that time, one of the best club sevens of all time.
The fact is that sevens makes different demands and it’s usually necessary to play a lot of sevens before you can meet these demands and learn how to read the shorter game, understanding the angles to run in both attack and defence. It was noticeable at Ibrox that, though Stephen Gemmell had called up Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont, he made less use of them than of players with experience of the IRB sevens circuit – and was right to make that judgement.
Our problem is of course that, unlike South Africa, we don’t have the strength in depth that allows us to develop two distinct international squads, one for the Six Nations and World Cup, one for the IRB sevens circuit. The Irish Rugby Union, being in a similar position, has opted out of the international sevens game altogether. There are some who think we should do the same. If we haven’t it’s partly because sevens originated here, at Melrose and in the other Borders clubs, and we feel it would be wrong for us to turn our backs on the short form of the game even though, undoubtedly, participation in the IRB circuit puts a strain on our meagre resources. Actually it would be not only be wrong; it would be foolish, for sevens is, internationally, the fastest growing form of rugby. We have, over the years, had our sevens specialists such as the captain Colin Gregor and Andrew Turnbull, but coaches have always had to improvise, rarely being sure of players’ availability. Our results on the IRB circuit would surely have been better if we had a settled squad. Unfortunately neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh, nor indeed the Scotland coaches can regularly spare the players to make this possible.
Three of the stars at Ibrox were Mark Bennett, Lee Jones and Richie Vernon. One can’t see either Gregor Townsend or Vern Cotter telling young Bennett, arguably the most promising young three-quarter in Scotland, to go off and play sevens for a couple of years. Jones and Vernon , both full Scotland caps, are capable of being at the heart of a very good Scottish Seven for years.
Both are versatile, Jones having played his early rugby at scrum half, Vernon having switched from number 8 to the centre.
Both are fast and strong, ideal sevens players. But both still have the ambition to fulfil their potential in the 15-a-side game. Yet, if we are to make our mark on the IRB sevens circuit, we need players of their ability. It’s a difficult question of priorities.