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The first Melrose Sevens match 1883

Melrose Sevens tournament in 1966

© SCRAN

On the 18 April 1993, on a bright cold Sunday, England and Harlequins winger Andrew Harriman lifted the Inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens trophy at Murrayfield, in Edinburgh. At the time, the ground was under reconstruction and spectator facilities were limited: it would appear to have been an odd choice of venue. Yet to those aware of the history of the abbreviated version of rugby, there could be no other place to stage the event.

The name of the trophy, The Melrose Cup, gives a clue to the origins of the sevens code. For sevens was a Scottish "invention", the product of the sleepy, but charming, town of Melrose, which nestles in the Eildon Hills in the Borders.

Rugby had taken root in the Borders in the 1870s, when the textile towns started to form clubs in Galashiels and Hawick. The game bore a striking similarity to the many "Ba" games which had been played throughout Scotland for many centuries. Rugby football was one of a number of codified versions of these games which had developed during the Victorian era.

Initially the men of Melrose and Gala formed the one team, but local rivalries meant that this was unsustainable. The history of the Melrose club started when they split from Gala, removing the Gala goalposts at the same time and hoisting them at The Greenyards, where the team still play.

In 1883 the club was short of cash, locally believed to have been caused by the doubling of the cost of admission, from 3d to 6d, to a derby match with Gala, which led to a boycott by the visiting support. At this point it was decided to hold a sports day and the Melrose Sports were initiated. The sevens tournament goes by this name to this day.

A sports day was not unusual in Scotland, indeed both Celtic and Rangers football clubs held such events. There were races and a series of other events connected with rugby. The highlight, however, was to be the "football" competition. This had been the brainchild of Ned Haig, an employee in a local butcher's. Haig had originally come from Jedburgh, but had started to play for Melrose in 1880.

He was later to recall: "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."

Centenary Melrose tournament

© SCRAN

Of course, the reduction in playing numbers was not the only difference in the game. Matches were of 15-minute duration, two 7.5-minute periods.

A trophy had been donated for the winners, by "the ladies of Melrose", and the cup now bears the name "The Ladies Cup". It was a small silver chalice, a uniquely pretty prize. When Andrew Harriman lifted the Melrose Cup in 1993, the trophy had been modelled on the original cup, but this time it was larger and made of gold.

Melrose were victorious in the first competition, defeating local rivals Gala in a contentious game, which saw the match tied after 15 minutes. It was agreed that a further period of 15 minutes would be played but when Melrose scored after 10 minutes, they walked of claiming their prize without even attempting to kick the goal. Despite Gala protests the referee decided that Melrose had won and thus created yet another grievance on which local rivalries thrive.

The "Sports" had been a considerable success and the border Advertiser reported that:

"By the time this event, the chief one of the day, commenced 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. From the former place alone there were 862 persons booked of whom 509 came by special train and the other 353 by ordinary train."

To the committees of nearby rivals, it was obvious that such a popular event could be the source if substantial revenues and the shortened version soon spread throughout other Border sides.

Galashiels Football Club ran their own tournament from 1884, with Hawick following suit in 1885. It was to be almost ten years before Jedforest started the Jedburgh Sports in 1894. The final fixture in the Borders Spring circuit, the Langholm Sevens, started in 1908.

The Sevens circuit is still an established part of Borders life and along with the 5 spring games, there are 3 pre-season tournaments at Selkirk (1919), Kelso (1920) and finally Earlston/Peebles (1923). These tournaments now combine for the "King of the Sevens" Borders series, which holds considerable bragging rights in local terms. The premier tournament remains, the Melrose Sports. Capable of attracting some of the greatest names in rugby, it is still played on the second Saturday in April.

Centenary Melrose tournament action

© SCRAN

Initially the game spread to Edinburgh as sides from the capital were invited to take a trip down the Waverley line to compete. It wasn't until 1905 that the tournament was won by a side from outside the Borders, Watsonian Football Club. The first non-Scots winners were Rosslyn Park in 1951, and more recently Stellenbosch (RSA), Bay of Plenty (NZ) and Randwick (Aus) have seen their stars take away a famous Melrose medal.

One of the most significant differences between sevens and five-a-side association football is that the full rugby park is played on and not a smaller court. This gives a lot more space for pace to work. It makes the game quick, dynamic and punishes even the smallest error harshly. It is then the pace players who flourish and the stoic, but slow forward is consigned to the role of spectator. This often means that tournaments are played in a cavalier and carnival atmosphere, which is infectious. The infection moved north to the Scottish cities, but the atmosphere whilst fun, never managed to catch the intimacy and fearsome rivalries of the Border circuit.

The international debut of the abbreviated game was in Argentina, where the first tournament was organised in Buenos Aires in 1921.

In truth, the game was seldom seen as anything more than a runabout, secondary to the full XV-a-side game. It is ironic that in England, despite the Middlesex sevens, played annually at Twickenham, the game had started to decline in the face of the increasing demands of the XV game, yet they still won the first Sevens world cup.

The internationalisation of the Sevens game started in 1976 with the establishment of a tournament in Hong Kong, one which would eventually revolutionise the game. Initially assistance was sought from the RFU, but with a lack of vision which is typical of British rugby, they did not respond.

So a tournament was started which involved sides mainly from the Pacific Rim. Cantabrians of New Zealand won the inaugural tournament, but very soon the competition involved representative sides of the major international nations and subsequently the Barbarian Football Club are the only non-international side to win the tournament.

Throughout the 1980s the tournament caught the rugby public's imagination, particularly the incredible rivalry which grew between the All Blacks and Fiji. The Pacific islanders rapidly became everyone's favourite underdogs and such was the popularity that the idea of a "world cup" came about. The Webb Ellis Trophy, the prize for the XV game, was only two tournaments old when the world of sevens came to Edinburgh to compete for the Melrose Cup.

Sevens had come home, yet the host nation's efforts were woeful. At XVs, they had won a Grand Slam a mere three seasons earlier. Considerable effort had gone into the preparation as Scotland's side had competed in a number of preparatory trips. Fourth out of six in their group, they competed for the losers' Bowl.

Whilst they reached the final of this, they lost to Japan, before the final ignominy of watching their oldest rivals, the Auld Enemy, lift the tournament. England's success was generally seen as a surprise as they put out the crowd's favourites Fiji in the semi-final and then defeated Australia in the Final,
a partial revenge for their defeat in the XVs final in 1991 to the same country.

Sevens, by contrast, grows from strength to strength. It is seen by the International Rugby Board as a means by which the emergent rugby nations can compete with the giants of the game. It has developed into a global 12 tournament "world series" and made its debut at the Commonwealth Games in 2002 in Manchester.

Whilst the XV code was last an Olympic sport in 1924, USA remain champions, moves are afoot for the seven-a-side game to become an Olympic sport in the near future. All thanks to Ned Haig, a Melrose butcher.

Written by: Alex Gordon



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