Melrose Sevens: Long day of fun but diminished status begs the question - what does it all mean?

The second Saturday in April used to be sacrosanct in Scottish rugby. All roads led to Melrose and the town’s world-famous sevens tournament – the original and the best.

The British Army team celebrates their win at the 2022 Melrose Sevens.
The British Army team celebrates their win at the 2022 Melrose Sevens.

It was a pretty good day in the Scottish Borders on Saturday as the British Army lifted the title with a 26-14 win over the Samurai invitational side in the final.

But times change and there is no escaping the fact that the endless expansion of professionalism means this event now has a diminished status. While it is still, comfortably, the biggest crowd for a club event you will get in Scotland this or any other year [several thousand although no official figure was provided], some of the sparkle has definitely gone.

This was the first tournament on the new artificial surface at the Greenyards which was installed after the 2019 tournament and just before Covid forced two years of cancellations. The enlarged playing enclosure surrounded by an immovable metal fence has reduced by about half the depth of the embankments at either end of the famous old ground. The BBC scaffolding is also now gone (that long-running broadcast arrangement is over), as have the two temporary stands which used to overlook the touchline opposite the clubhouse, and the sense of occasion definitely suffers as a consequence.

As the afternoon wore on the crowd did thicken out, and the atmosphere did build (at least partially thanks the fresh Spring conditions which were conducive to the partaking of liquid refreshments). It also helped that some of the rugby on the pitch was genuinely entertaining. But it was hard to escape the nagging question: what does it all mean?

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Where does the Melrose Sevens fit into the modern Scottish rugby landscape? Can it have a meaningful role in the development pathway in the way it did in the last tournament before the turn of the century when Chris Paterson lit up the Greenyards as part of a triumphant Gala team and found himself catapulted him into the professional game and onto the national team within six months?

On the face of it, there is no reason why this can’t be the case. After all, it is one of the rare occasions on the Scottish rugby calendar when amateurs can go toe-to-toe against professionals in an environment which provides an intense test of skill, fitness and nerve. Perhaps if it can be the showcase event in an authentic Sevens series, as the Borders circuit used to be?

But, really, that’s not the way it works these days. There is already too much confusion and disagreement over how the regular season should be structured, and over how various strands of the game (amateur, semi-pro, academies, full-time pro) should interact, to even think about adding an organised Sevens series into the mix.

So, maybe Melrose Sevens should just carry on as now, as an historic rugby brand and a jolly good day out for those that way inclined? Although, that doesn’t feel like a promising long-term strategy.

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Inviting more and more teams – seven guest sides this year taking the total number of teams to 26 – is not the solution. It doesn’t automatically raise standards but does drag the thing out for too long in an era when peoples’ time is precious. The first tie yesterday, between Glasgow Hawks and Musselburgh, was at 10.50am, and the final didn’t kick-off until 7.30pm. That’s a hell of a long day, which eats into your morning, afternoon and evening. You can have too much of a good thing.

We shouldn’t be too critical of the tournament organisers. This was a desperately tricky undertaking after two years in hibernation and with so much uncertainty still swirling around due to the virus. The plan to run a four-day festival, which included a Hall of Fame dinner on Thursday night, a golden oldies match and party event on Friday night and a concert featuring Big Country this evening was bold, proving that there is a determination to adapt in order to remain relevant. But whether the Hong Kong rugby festival model can be transported to the Scottish Borders remains to be seen Next year will be easier.

The birth of Super6, creating another tier between the club game and the superstars at the summit can’t have helped, especially as one of the franchises, Southern Knights, is based at the Greenyards meaning that the town’s top team weren’t taking part yesterday … although a few of their players featured in the Melrose team which was one of two Scottish sides to reach the semi-final stage along with Currie Chieftains.

Melrose had a bye through the first round then beat Aberdeen Grammar [43-0] and the Belgium national sevens team [14-10] to reach the semis, before they came up short against a strong Samurai invitational side.

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Currie Chieftains were dfinitely the surprise package, beating Boroughmuir 36-0 in the first round, Lomoaiviti (a guest side comprising of Fijians living in the UK) 29-12 in the second-round, and pre-tournament favourites the Co-optimist guest side 17-5 in the quarter-final, before running out of steam against the Army.

While Chieftains were certainly aided in the Co-Optimists by the early red-carding of Edinburgh pro Freddie Owsley for a swinging arm, it was still an excellent performance, especially as they only had one week of sevens preparation after playing and losing the Premiership final last weekend.

“We trained Tuesday and Thursday, but I think the key is that we have trained hard all season, and what sevens does is test your core skills which is something we’ve worked hard on all year,” said Fergus Scott, the Currie captain and player-coach, who revealed that this was the first proper sevens tournament he had ever played in.

“We just took the view that we’d pull together our best squad and give it a bash. We got the rub of the green at times as well, but I’d argue we made our own luck by working hard. We had nothing to lose and we just gave it our all. That was the most pleasing thing for me – the fight and the determination we showed.”

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