The world's first rugby sevens tournament was played at the Greenyards, on the 28th of April, 1883.
When it comes to 'firsts' as in the first occurrence of an event, why is it that people use the term first-ever? You'd be forgiven for thinking that the suffix is superfluous, but maybe it's used to avoid having to write “it was the first 'such and such' to take place on [insert date].” One such event, which took place on Saturday, the 28th of April, 1883, was the world's first rugby sevens competition. So there you go, the game at which the likes of Fiji and New Zealand now excel was invented, created, dreamt up, initiated – whatever you like – by a player from Melrose Football Club. Maybe the lack of player numbers, a contributory reason behind the nation's lack of rugby success in recent years, had also been a factor in the birth of seven-a-side rugby back in 1883? Had Melrose been unable to field a full team of fifteen on that Saturday afternoon? Nope, the incentive behind Ned Haig's innovative new game wasn't so prosaic.
Rugby sevens is now played on an international stage, from Hong Kong to Scotland, and 2012 sees the 122nd playing of the one and only Melrose Sevens, with guest teams coming from all over the world. Winners of the Melrose event over the years have included Melrose, Watsonians (the first side from outside the Borders to win the tournament; in 1905), Rosslyn Park (the first non-Scots winners; in 1951) from England, Randwick and Manly from Australia, Bay of Plenty from New Zealand, and Stellenbosch from South Africa. Rugby sevens is now administered by the International Rugby Board (IRB) and its notable competitions include the IRB Sevens World Series and the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
Rugby sevens has also been played at some multi-sport events, such as the Commonwealth Games (its début was in 2002, in Manchester), and it is now recognised as an Olympic sport (it will first appear at the 2016 Summer Olympics). Long before the IRB got involved, the 'abbreviated game' of sevens rugby appears to have made its international début in Argentina, where a tournament was organised, in Buenos Aires, in 1921. That year also saw the inauguration of the North Shields Sevens at Percy Park, which probably means that Argentina and England share the distinction of introducing the short game outwith Scotland.
However, the real internationalisation of sevens began in 1976, with the establishment of the Hong Kong Sevens, an event that most would agree has revolutionised the game. The initial Hong Kong tournament was won by Cantabrians of New Zealand, but very soon the competition evolved to involve representative international sides and it has led to the IRB's World Series, a tournament with rivalries that have captured the imagination.
The first international seven-a-side tournament was the Centenary Sevens, organised by the Scottish Rugby Union to celebrate, guess what, its centenary (not the centenary of the first sevens game). That first international sevens competition undoubtedly gave the world a glimpse of the huge potential of the short game and led to the inauguration of the Hong Kong event.
These days, there is hardly a rugby playing territory in the world without its own sevens tournament, but it was quite different back in 1883. Tradition has it that Melrose Football Club, suffering from a lack of cash as a result of a boycott by visiting Gala support, due to the club having doubled the cost of admission tickets for a derby match, was in desperate need of ideas to help its finances. Ned Haig, a scrum half and member of the General and Match Committee, offered the suggestion of a football tournament and sports day. Consequently, the Melrose Sports, the name by which its tournament is still known, was created.
In an article called “An old Melrose Player's Recollections”, written around 1907, Haig later recalled, “Want of money made us rack our brains as to what was to be done to keep the Club from going to the wall, and the idea struck me that a football tournament might prove attractive, but as it was hopeless to think of having several games in one afternoon with fifteen players on each side, the teams were reduced to seven men.”
Initially, the programme for the Melrose Sports contained foot races, a dribbling race, and drop goal and place kicking competitions. However, the 'Football Competition' was the main attraction. The Border Advertiser of the 2nd of May, 1883, read, “The competition has been looked forward to with great interest, as most clubs of the district were expected to compete for the prize – a silver cup presented by the Ladies of Melrose.” In terms of Melrose's finances, the concept certainly seems to have been a success as the Advertiser further reported, “...an enormous crowd of spectators had assembled, special trains having been run from Galashiels and Hawick and about 1,600 tickets had been taken at Melrose during the day.”
Seven Border clubs – Gala, Selkirk, St. Cuthbert's Hawick, Earlstone, Melrose, Gala Forest and St. Ronan's Innerleithen – contested the Ladies' Cup. Unsurprisingly, Gala and Melrose, the leading clubs, reached the final. The match ended in a draw, and the extraordinary outcome, after 10 minutes of extra time, originated the sudden-death feature of the modern game. As the Melrose Sevens historian, Les Allan, explains, “Sanderson scored a cheeky blind-side try and, being captain, led his team from the field.” The Melrose players walked of claiming their prize without even attempting to kick the goal and, despite Gala protests, the referee decided Melrose had won.
It was obvious that similar events could be the source of substantial revenues and the sevens game soon spread. Galashiels ran its own tournament from 1884, with Hawick following suit in 1885. Jedforest started the Jedburgh Sports in 1894 and the Langholm Sevens began in 1908. These days, the 'Borders Sevens Circuit' is an established part of Borders life that includes the league competition known as the 'Kings of the Sevens'. The Melrose Sevens, played on the second Saturday in April every year, remains the most premier Scottish Sevens tournament, regularly attracting crowds in excess of 10,000.
In honour of the role of Melrose RFC in the creation of rugby sevens, in 2008 the club and Haig were inducted to the IRB Hall of Fame. Ned Haig was born in Jedburgh on the 7th of December, 1858, and he died on the 28th of March, 1939. A butcher's apprentice at the time of his innovative contribution to the history of rugby, Haig played for Melrose and the District and South of Scotland side.