THE HSBC World Sevens Series reached its climax in Paris last Sunday with Fiji confirming their top-dog status with a fifth triumph of the campaign, while this coming Saturday the Edinburgh City 7s – a successful new addition to the Scottish rugby calendar last summer – will return to Inverleith Park in the capital.
Both these events provide timely reminders of what this strand of the game can offer in terms of a sporting spectacle and a jolly good day out – which brings into sharp focus the challenges currently facing 7s rugby in its historic heartland of the Scottish Borders.
This season’s ‘Kings of the 7s’ series wound up a fortnight ago at Jed-Forest, with Watsonians beating the hosts in the final to claim their fifth title of the season, but in the wake of what was a competition of mixed standards there are many who are asking if ‘The Kings’ can survive in its current form.
So, what issues have emerged from the 2018-19 edition of the ‘Kings of the 7s’? Quite a lot as it happens.
Nine into seven doesn’t work
The ‘Kings of the 7s’ was played over ten rounds, one tournament (Peebles) in August and the remaining nine in the spring over a tight schedule of seven weekends. The consequence of this is four of the tournaments being played back-to-back on two weekends, leading to the charge that the interests of players are being thrown overboard.
Former Scotland stand-off Andrew Ker, a serial sevens winner with Kelso, and now president of title-winners Watsonians, articulated the danger of too many tournaments. “Whoever organises the Borders sevens has got to get into the 21st century and consider player welfare,” he said. “That means looking again at back-to-back tournaments. We won Kelso and Earlston on successive days, but the guys were on their knees.”
Give 7s its place
“We need to sort out the 15-a-side season,” Ker continued. “In my days we played 15s to the end of March and then 7s in April. Now there’s far too much on. The SRU want 22 games or whatever, which means they have to be played at silly times of the year. Something has to change.”
He’s hit the nail on the head there. It’s difficult for 15s rugby and the 7s game to be played concurrently, as so many of the Borders clubs have found to their cost. Key clubs such as Kelso, Gala, Jed, Selkirk and Peebles were all involved in National League matches in April, while Melrose were bogged down in the Cup and the Premiership play-offs.
By contrast Watsonians, Boroughmuir and Edinburgh Accies, whose 15s programmes were effectively finished at the beginning of March, performed very well. A lesson there perhaps?
Is it time for a change in format?
You really wouldn’t want the likes of Langholm to be in a similar league to Ayr in 15s rugby. Yet we accept this in the 7s game and we accept that junior clubs turn up at tournaments as first-round cannon-fodder. Not much fun for them?
“We’ve seen that in most tournaments the first-round ties are pretty one-sided – so what do you do? Do you reduce it to the 12 best teams?” asked Ker, before making a few suggestions of his own. “You could even have eight teams playing in two pools of four. You could introduce a pool of four women’s teams. Just something different. Something has to happen. I don’t think that Melrose with their 24-team format works. Hopefully once the dust has settled on this series, some new ideas will be put out there.”
7s is now an Olympic and Commonwealth Games sport and is played globally in the World Series. In none of these competitions is the format a straight knock-out. Instead they are organised in pools. Peebles, Gala and Berwick have led the way on the Border circuit, is it time for the other tournaments to catch up?
Reduce the number of tournaments?
Up until now, each of the ten Border clubs has supported each other’s tournament, generating the ten rounds that make up the ‘Kings of the 7s’ series. But if it were to become a two-tier competition based on merit then the number of tournaments would be reduced. That would be tough financially on junior clubs, but such a split would solve the problem of double shifts at weekends and mean that some of the perennial first-round losers will have a realistic chance of making a day of it.
Time to recognise the contribution of Edinburgh clubs?
With Melrose heavily involved in April 15s, and a casualty ward worth of wounded players, the Greenyards club was unable to throw its usual weight behind the 7s season. Jed, too, suffered from league matches and despite a strong effort late in the day they could not make up lost ground. Instead the centre of gravity continued to shift to the city clubs of Watsonians, Boroughmuir and Edinburgh Accies. So, should they be rewarded for this achievement in some way?
“Why don’t the winners of ‘The Kings’ be offered one of the tournaments?’ asked Graham Shiel, a former Melrose stalwart and Scotland 7s coach, who was at the helm as Boroughmuir finished runners-up in this year ‘Kings’. “The brand travels well – if you look at Hong Kong and so on – the model works.”
Why were Watsonians so dominant?
The Myreside club had a near perfect balance of players, with pace in Scott McKean and former New Year Sprint winner Ben Robbins, the playmaking skills from Lee Miller, Andrew Skeen and Ali Harris, and an excellent utility player in Lewis Berg. Moreover, Watsonians had first-class coaches in Mike Ker and Conan Sharman, and a large squad that allowed the club to field several teams on any given weekend. Crucially, Watsonians over the last decade have built up a culture of 7s rugby that is now making them the stars of the circuit.
And the other Edinburgh clubs?
This season, Boroughmuir made a massive impression on the Borders circuit and were the only club to seriously challenge Watsonians. Shiel was undoubtedly a key driving force behind the Meggetland momentum but, like Watsonians, they also had players prepared to buy into an intensive 7s programme. Gavin Parker proved to be a key outside back, and for the later tournaments Archie Russell showed he shares some of the flair of his brother Finn. The other stars for Boroughmuir were hooker Johnny Matthews (a prolific try-scorer), wing Gavin Welch and utility player Greig Cannie.
Edinburgh Accies, who finished in third place, had similar advantages with coaching expertise from Graham Bonner and Mark Appleson and a stack of good players that included playmaker Richard Mill, nifty centre Robbie Kent and hard-working forwards Jamie Sole and Laurie Seydak.
What happened to the Borders clubs?
That’s a question that has been troubling the mind of Jed’s director of rugby Kevin Barrie. “We’ve got to have a good hard think about sevens in the Borders,” he said.
Melrose opted to field a young squad to further develop emerging talent that included three teenagers in Kieran Clark, Ethan McVicar and Harri Morris. The 17-year old Clark certainly looked the part, with his pace and footwork prompting comparison with Darcy Graham. If he and other youngsters can flourish then that is reason enough to invest in ‘The Kings’ of the 7s as an important contributor to Scottish rugby.
Scottish rugby has a complicated relationship with 7s rugby. It is the gift we gave the rest of the sport, but it wasn’t so long ago that the SRU wanted to disband the national 7s team. The Borders circuit offers an excellent opportunity for aspiring players to test their skill, fitness, courage and composure under pressure, and an occasion for clubs to come together and celebrate the game.
‘The Kings’ undoubtedly needs to adapt, but there is something there which has real value, and can be replicated elsewhere in Scotland.
Instead of looking to France, the USA and South Africa for ways to get ahead of the game, perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider some uniquely Scottish solutions to the challenge of making the most of our limited resources.