Combine American football and the 100-meter dash, pump up the adrenaline level, throw in a couple of Elvis costumes—and you have one of the world’s fastest-growing sports
Author Larry Olmsted
AN IMPERIAL STORMTROOPER accompanying Darth Vader along the sidewalk barely gets a second glance. The same goes for the photo-op guys dressed as Transformers, Hello Kitty and Super Mario Brothers. But when a gray-haired couple strolls down Las Vegas Boulevard in matching Scotland team jerseys and kilts, heads turn. It can mean only one thing: Sevens is back in town.
A supercharged spin-off of conventional rugby, Rugby Sevens has emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. This is partly because of the pre- and post-match excess—Sevens is as much a carnival as it is a spectator sport—and partly because the game itself is such a whirl.
With teams of seven on a field scaled for twice as many players, Sevens is a blur of hyperactivity and over-the-top athleticism. At last year’s Las Vegas event (the only international men’s Sevens tournament in the U.S.), players scored on average every 79 seconds.
In traditional rugby, each team has 15 players, most of them huge, playing on a pitch roughly the size of a football field. Because 30 massive bodies take up a lot of space, you tend to see more grappling and posturing than open play. Put half the number of players on the same field, however, and suddenly you have space—tons of it. This fact, combined with an almost complete lack of stoppages, lends Sevens the freneticism that has proved such a hit with fans. Beth Coalter, Sevens manager for the International Rugby Board, rightly describes the game as “fast, exciting and totally entertaining.”
American sports fans tend to be taken aback by the pace and unpredictability of Sevens. In many ways, it resembles a nonstop NFL kickoff return, in which anything can happen and usually does, with fumbles, bone-crunching tackles, interceptions and high-speed breakaways. Teams move down the field in a line, passing backward and looking for defensive holes, but players can also kick the ball forward to teammates sprinting for the goal line. Another appealing factor is the game’s simplicity: Unlike with football, the rules do not require a lifetime of study. “You can start watching yesterday,” says Nigel Melville, CEO of USA Rugby, “and understand it today.”
Conceived in Scotland in the late 1800s, Rugby Sevens didn’t enjoy widespread popularity until more than a century later, following its inaugural World Cup in Edinburgh in 1993. In a remarkable triumph for the sport’s boosters, Sevens has been put on the roster for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, marking the first time rugby will be played at the Olympics since 1924, when the U.S. won gold competing in the traditional Fifteens version.
But then, Sevens is ideally suited to the tournament environment. A match takes just 15 minutes, including a minute for halftime, so as many as 24 games can be played in a single day. “If you go get a beer, you come back and two different countries are playing,” says Matt Hawkins, captain of the U.S. men’s national team, the Eagles. “It’s 14 minutes that are action-packed, but then there’s another 14 minutes. And another.”
With extra space on the field, Sevens emphasizes speed, a fact that has made American player Carlin Isles the sport’s most exciting talent. A world-class sprinter, Isles likely would have made the London Olympics in the 100-meter dash had he hailed from a different country. But the U.S. has a glut of runners, so Isles traded his track shoes for rugby boots and joined the Eagles. He is now regarded as the fastest player in Sevens history.
With the Rio Olympics coming, the U.S. is putting a lot of money and effort into Sevens, and the Eagles are on the upswing, ensconced at a new Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif. The effort is already paying dividends: Playing against Spain in Vegas, with two scores by Isles in the first half, the Eagles roll over their supposedly superior opponents and go on to finish the tournament tied for seventh (which is quite respectable, given that the U.S. isn’t exactly renowned for rugby of any sort).
The Eagles are also quickly gaining a cadre of enthusiastic supporters, an increasing number of whom are joining the legions of fanatics who travel the world to follow their teams. There’s ample evidence of this devotion at the Vegas event, which is a clamorous multicultural jamboree. Clive, a 60-something Londoner attending the U.S.-Spain game, has already done Dubai and South Africa this season, and holds tickets for upcoming events in Tokyo, Hong Kong, London and Glasgow. “I played Fifteens in university and afterward, but once I watched Sevens I could never watch Fifteens again,” he says. “It’s just too slow.” The supporters around him, meanwhile, are more interested in singing bawdy songs than discussing the finer points of the game.
The same goes for the crowds lined up along Fremont Street for the tournament’s opening parade. As each of the national teams passes by, the fans that have followed them halfway around the globe roar with approval, a response that seems a mix of nationalistic fervor and the simple desire to shout very loudly. At the stadium, beer and food stands representing participating countries line the route, with samosas, barbecue, fish and chips, curries and more being consumed in vast quantities.
“This place rocks,” says Eagles head coach Alex Magleby, surveying the scene. “It’s awesome, it’s nonstop, and it keeps building all day. The costumes are crazy, and some people spend all year working on them.” The costumes are indeed something to behold: Elvis, spacemen, three blind mice, gorillas, bananas, Pac Man and Marilyn Monroe are all represented. Sure, Sevens games are action-packed, but there’s a sense that many of the fans are just as enthralled by what goes on off the field. As Eagles player Luke Hume puts it, “It’s a big dance party where there also happens to be rugby.”
LARRY OLMSTED is a longtime sports and travel journalist. He has set Guinness World Records in poker, golf and skiing, but only his skiing record still stands. Look out, rugby …
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At the highest level Rugby Sevens is played between national teams, culminating in the World Cup every four years; this year it’s in Moscow, June 28–30. (rwcsevens.com)
The easiest tournaments to attend are those in the annual HSBC Sevens World Series: Las Vegas; Hong Kong; Tokyo; Wellington, New Zealand; Gold Coast, Australia; Dubai; Port Elizabeth, South Africa; London; and Glasgow. A 10th meet will be added in Argentina for the 2013–14 season. (irbsevens.com)
Hong Kong’s tournament is far and away the most festive—it’s the city’s version of the Super Bowl—followed by Las Vegas and Wellington for sheer celebratory glee.
A women’s World Series launched in 2012, with tournaments in Houston; Dubai; Guangzhou, China; and Amsterdam. (wsws.irb.com)
The USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship will be held this year June 1–2 in Philadelphia, with 20 teams competing; NBC will broadcast. (usasevenscrc.com)