MELROSE will launch the main sevens season in Scotland this year with Waisale Serevi, the undisputed king of world sevens, bringing down the curtain on his distinguished career at the Greenyards on Saturday.
Serevi views it as a great honour to finish his career at the Greenyards, playing in the original sevens tournament for the first time, and taking to a stage graced by such illustrious world stars as David Campese, Serge Blanco, Will Carling, Percy Montgomery and Breyton Paulse.
But does sevens rugby retain a special place in the affections of Scottish rugby? Is there still space in the calendar for the tournaments (which are key fundraisers for many clubs, notably in the Borders), but also a vibrant attraction to rugby for many generations over the course of the past 100 years?
Gala used to launch the Border spring circuit but they have moved this year to May to try to rekindle old support after a few years of dwindling numbers at Netherdale, and the increasing congestion of rescheduled league and cup matches, so the curtain rises at Melrose.
It is a venue Andrew Ker knows well. No-one in Scottish rugby has won more top sevens medals than Ker, now coaching at Watsonians, and he was a key figure as Kelso became the sevens masters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning the title with victory over Stewart's Melville in 1978 and going on to feature in an incredible 13 finals in the next 17 years. Fittingly, Kelso won seven times at Melrose between 1978 and 1989, the year they also lifted Scotland's Division One Championship.
Then, however, the league championships tended to finish before April, and sevens were a sign of summer approaching. Yet, even with the congestion in the modern calendar, Ker has no doubt that the abbreviated game still has a role to play.
"It will be a sad day when sevens no longer features in the Scottish rugby calendar," he said. "It has had to adapt a bit, but there are reasons why it is popular, for spectators and players, and they haven't changed.
"From a pure rugby perspective, sevens certainly help with players' skills, and for supporters it's a great opportunity to spend a day watching rugby and socialising, as we'll see again at Melrose this weekend no doubt.
"I'd like to see more sevens played across Scotland at this time of the year, with tournaments in each area and a big finals at Murrayfield, but at the moment there are too many tournaments in April and May, almost every Saturday and Sunday, and that's tough going on the players, especially with the pace and power of the modern sevens game.
"If we staged more in July/ August, we would use them as a great warm-up to the season, again both for players and their skills and fitness, and for supporters, to get them into the mood for the XVs season."
Ker was a silky stand-off in the Kelso colours and players such as Bob Hogarth, Eric Paxton, John Jeffrey, Gary Callander, Michael Minto, Euan Common, Dougie Robeson and Roger Baird became well known through their sevens displays. Ker has a clear recollection of players dating from the 1970s, and how the abbreviated game was an integral part of growing up in Kelso.
"I don't know why sevens was so strong there, but it was and everyone grew up with sevens," he said. "Then, we had three tournaments in the pre-season, ours, Selkirk's and Earlston's, and then five in the spring, and I just remember you getting into April and suddenly escaping the confines of XV-a-side and finding open, green space to run in and exploit.
"I was fortunate to be coming through at a time when there were so many good players – people like George Fairburn, Jim Chisholm and Ian Gillespie initially and then Bob Hogarth, Ecky Paxton and the rest.
"When you look at players who were good, there are so many great sevens players from Scotland. Keith Robertson was fantastic; Michael Dods and Chris Paterson in Gala's winning seven; Jim Renwick was a great player although he never really got recognised in sevens because Hawick weren't so successful; Dougie Morgan and the Calders, in the fine Stewart's Melville sides we battled with… Dougie Wyllie, Ian Forsyth; and then in the west Sandy Service was a good sevens player.
"But as for the tournaments, winning at Melrose has always been huge. You always wanted to win your own sevens, but after that it was Melrose and doing it in 1978 was an incredible feeling. It is the biggest and they have worked hard to keep it up there, with its history, and I'm looking forward to this year's because it's pretty wide open again."
Ker has worked at international level with Scotland and he is pleased to see the nation having a presence on the IRB world stage, but he admitted to having winced at recent showings where the Scots struggled to compete for honours in the second and third-tier events.
"It is not easy at that level because sevens has moved on hugely, but I think we are making it harder for ourselves by only sending out teams of inexperienced youngsters," suggested Ker. "When we had Colin Gregor and Andrew Turnbull available, the team improved, and that showed the value of having players who know how to play sevens, and it is not something that comes naturally to a lot of rugby players.
"I look at players on the Borders circuit like Fraser Harkness at Selkirk. He is a fantastic sevens player, and while he might not be fit enough right now to play on the IRB circuit, bring him in with extra training sessions and he would be. What he has is real sevens know-how and if we are to improve on the world circuit we need to help the young academy lads gain genuine experience." He added: "There is a lot of excitement at Watsonians for the sevens season and I think when you get players excited about sevens, they can really develop as skilful rugby players. Now, looking forward to Melrose on Saturday, you can feel the same excitement I felt as a player 30 years ago. These lads just want to be the best and want to be kings of the sevens. There wasn't that title when I played, but it was just the same – at Kelso we considered ourselves kings!"
ANDREW KER'S SCOTTISH VII
I COULD pick an entire Kelso seven, a Watsonians team, or just players from my vintage, and change it tomorrow, but to get people talking here's a mix of players I've enjoyed playing with and/or watching.
• Andrew Turnbull (Watsonians) – Pace and sidestep has made him a very dangerous, elusive runner
• Scott Nichol (Selkirk) – Was not as fast as some wingers, but could glide through spaces only he could find
• Colin Gregor (Watsonians) – Fantastic vision and could read a game exceptionally well
• Bob Hogarth (Kelso) – Great engine, would run all day and a fantastic tackler
• Eric Paxton (Kelso) – Another who would run all day, put in big hits and a great ball-winner
• Gary Callander (Kelso) – Exceptional in the scrums, would never lose a ball and a great reader of the game
• John Jeffrey (Kelso) – Won balls in the lineout for us and had a bit more pace than the other two
Sat 11 April – Melrose
Sat 18 April – Hawick
Sun 19 April – Berwick
Sat 25 April – Langholm
Sun 26 April – Peebles
Sat 2 May – Gala
Sun 3 May – Earlston
Sat 9 May – Jed-Forest
Sat 16 May – Glasgow City