If he were alive today, Ned Haig would find it hard to believe just how big rugby sevens has become.
Back in 1883, the rugby-playing Melrose butcher came up with the idea of a sports day – incorporating a shortened format of rugby, because of time constraints – to raise much-needed funds to cover the host club’s running costs.
Now the sport generates millions from TV revenue, ticket sales and sponsorship and is played in every corner of the world, not just a small enclave of the Scottish Borders.
While Melrose is seen as the birthplace of sevens, its spiritual home is widely regarded as Hong Kong, one of many exotic locations found on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, which began in 1999-2000.
From kicking off with 12 teams in front of 3,000 people in 1976 to today’s three-day extravaganza of international rugby revelry with 28 series teams playing in front of 120,000 spectators, the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens is truly one of the sporting calendar’s must-visit destinations.
Since its launch in 2012-13, the women's series has gone from strength-to-strength and now includes a record eight tournaments, six of which are played alongside the men's series.
“Sevens has certainly come a long way since I played,” said former England Sevens player and coach Mike Friday, now in charge of the USA men’s team.
“I was there when the series pretty much first started and I remember playing in a sandstorm in front of one man and his dog in Beijing, as they tried to build out the circuit.
“Some locations worked, and some didn’t. You had the anchors in Dubai and Hong Kong, which were always well attended and could be the blueprint to something successful. It was then about filling the calendar with alternative venues which would create the world travelling circus which is kind of where we are now.”
The arrival of Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1993 added another dimension to the sport, with Scotland once again the starting point for a tournament that now features the world’s best male and female sevens players.
At the most recent RWC Sevens in San Francisco in 2018, 100,000 fans attended across the three days and created an incredible atmosphere inside the iconic AT&T Park, with a US broadcast audience of nine million tuning in to see the action.
Dare to dream
With its fast-paced nature and lesser reliance on physicality, rugby sevens has been an excellent vehicle for growing the game in territories where the sport was previously under-exposed or non-existent.
The USA was one of the major markets where huge growth was possible. Under Friday, the national men’s team has been transformed, finishing second on the 2019 series.
“It’s a form of the game that can truly be the global game for anybody to compete in and become the best in the world, in the men’s and women’s game,” said Friday.
“We (USA) were sitting 13th and looking down the barrel to then nearly winning the world series.
“Every country can dare to dream that they can become a world force in the game of sevens.”
Keys to the kingdom
Inclusion in the Commonwealth Games and then, crucially, the Olympic Games took rugby, in all its formats, onto another level altogether.
Recognising its athletic qualities and the inclusiveness of the sport thanks to the growing women’s game, the International Olympic Committee voted overwhelmingly in 2009 for rugby sevens to be added to the programme of events for Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.
Having missed out on Rio 2016, China's women qualified for the Tokyo tournament, and head coach Sean Horan says it's been a game-changer.
“It’s woken China up to rugby. For two months there was a whole lot of celebrating going on,” Horan, who guided New Zealand's women to silver in Rio, told World Rugby, when asked about the impact of Olympic qualification.
Like Horan, Friday says the benefits of Olympic inclusion have been huge in the USA.
“In America, the Olympics is the only thing that sits comparable to the super sports of basketball and (American) football,” he said.
“The reality is that if you can’t be in either of those two sports, you can be an Olympian, and that ticks a lot of boxes in terms of athletic capability but also on the number of sporting eyeballs that watch the game.
“The Olympics has helped improve awareness and created role models. As a consequence, sevens is very much the keys to the kingdom in unlocking the rugby union capability in America.”
Sadly, the coronavirus lockdown and the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021 means that sports fans will have to bide their time to see the sort of skills on display in Brazil four years ago when Fiji and Australia won gold in the men’s and women’s events.
Rio will take some beating, but, having seen how Japan met the challenge of hosting Rugby World Cup 2019, it will be worth the wait.