Allan Massie: Sevens can be the perfect antidote

Glasgow Warriors, captained by James Eddie, were triumphant at the Melrose Sevens last year. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS/SRU

Glasgow Warriors, captained by James Eddie, were triumphant at the Melrose Sevens last year. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS/SRU

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In the wake of last week’s article about desirable changes in the Laws of Rugby, I heard from one of Scotland’s stars of the 80s. He was, he said, off to Hong Kong to watch the tens and sevens and enjoy running rugby without tedious scrums, driving mauls and referees trying to decide who was cheating least at the breakdown. A lot of people will agree with him.

Though it would be absurd to suggest that the full 15-a-side game is in crisis – after all, attendances continue to rise – nevertheless, for many worldwide, Sevens seems to be, if not the way forward, the most enjoyable form of the game. Sevens will feature in this year’s Olympics and that will give the short form of the game another boost. For almost a century after Sevens was invented here in the Borders, most of the world more or less ignored the short game. Now it is only a small exaggeration to suggest that Sevens is to international 15-a-side rugby what T20 is to Test cricket. It’s seen as the way forward for lower tier nations, such as the USA, Kenya and Portugal, and it is the form of the game in which the South Sea Island countries compete with New Zealand, South Africa and Australia on equal terms.

Strangely, sadly, it is here in the home of Sevens that the short game is not flourishing. The Scotland Sevens team on the international circuit doesn’t do badly but we don’t have the resources to give it much, if any, chance of winning titles. The regular members of the squad are players who have not quite made the grade for Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their team-mates are youngsters who may yet cut it in the 15-a-side game, but then may not. To be blunt, the Scotland Sevens squad is composed of players whom the pro clubs think they can spare. There’s nothing shameful about this. We are a small country which still aspires to compete against the best in the 15-a-side international and European club game. Wales is in the same position and has not met with greater success than Scotland on the IRB Sevens circuit. Ireland, conscious of the demands made on a similarly small pool of players, has chosen to opt out of the Sevens game.

The Melrose Sevens remains one of the highlights of our rugby year and today’s tournament will as usual attract a huge crowd. That Melrose has managed to maintain its popularity is remarkable and is evidence of the intelligence and commitment of the club’s committee over the years. The standard remains high, the organisation exemplary. Other clubs no longer attract the attendances which were common before rugby went professional. Nevertheless, boosted in part by the introduction of the Kings of the Sevens league table, the Borders Sevens circuit retains its vitality.

The overall standard may not be as high as it was a quarter of a century ago and the absence of international players means that the casual spectator often recognises few of the players on the field. All the same, a Sevens tournament remains enjoyable.

Yet, bearing in mind what that old international said this week about the tedium of scrums, driving mauls etc, reflecting also on the common complaint that professional rugby players are now so big and powerful that 15-a-side rugby is no longer a game for all sizes and shapes, and brooding on the increasing popularity of Sevens, I wonder if the time will come when rugby will follow the example of rowing which, years ago, introduced lightweight classes.

It would be interesting certainly to watch a professional rugby series in which no forward was permitted to weigh more than, say, 14 stone, and no back more than 12. Scrums might even stay up, not collapse, and backs seek space rather than contact. Weights given in old programmes were not always reliable (I don’t suppose they are today either), but my memory is that the Scottish back division in the Triple Crown and Grand Slam matches in 1984 had an average weight of less than 12 stone. They played some pretty good rugby too, especially against Ireland at Lansdowne Road.

Finally, a footnote to what I wrote last week about the need for the authorities to find ways of reducing the number of players suffering concussions. When each week’s Glasgow line-up is announced, the press release also lists the players not available for selection on account of injury. There were 11 on this week’s list. In five cases, the reason was given as concussion. Too many, far too many, even if their absence from the selected squad means that cases of concussion are now being taken seriously, the return to play protocol is being observed, and players are not being rushed back into action.

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