Rugby will be played in the Olympics in 2016 for the first time in nearly a century, but it will be returning in a different form. Instead of the standard 15 players on the pitch for each side, there will be 7. This version of the game is called “sevens,” naturally enough, although it has been renamed “Olympic rugby” in some quarters in recognition of its newly elevated status.
The Evolution of Sevens
This recognition by the International Olympic Committee is just another step in the growing-up process for a version of rugby that started in Scotland in 1883 as a sort of vacation sideshow. What was once a diversion has become a sport with a year-round world-wide tournament (with stops in Las Vegas, Dubai, Hong Kong, London, and Tokyo, among others) with professional players who play nothing but sevens.
So how, other than the number of players, is sevens different from regular rugby? The other primary difference is the length of the matches: sevens is played, for the most part, in matches of 15 minutes total (with two 7-minute halves and a one-minute halftime).
How Sevens is Different
Because the size of the field does not change, sevens players have basically twice as much room to maneuver as they have during regular rugby, in matches that last roughly one-fifth the duration. These two basic changes in the time and space in which the game is played combine to create a much faster game with less heavy contact, wilder tactics, and lots and lots of running.
The overall structure of the sevens match is the same as regular rugby; there are still kickoffs to re-start play, as well as scrums, lineouts, and penalties. With only seven players, however, all these parts of the game look slightly different.
Scrums, for example. Each sevens side has only three pack players – two props and a hooker. Gone are the second and third rows, and with them the titanic struggles pitting hundreds of kilograms of beef against each other. Instead, a sevens scrum tends to last only two or three seconds, and as such is much less grueling.
The same goes for lineouts. Sevens clubs will still have hoisters and a jumper on both offense and defense, but there will only be one “pod” these players instead of two or three. The ball will be thrown in quickly – usually by the scrumhalf or hooker – it will come out quickly (again in two or three seconds) and will move to the backs almost immediately. Sevens clubs will not expend a lot of effort on lineouts either during the matches or in practice, as they are a much rarer occurrence than in regular rugby.
Loose Play: Fast and Furious
Most of the energy expended during a sevens match is on loose play. As readers can imagine, with that much open space and a relatively small amount of time in which to work, a sevens club will focus on keeping possession of the ball and working on overmatching the defense.
Run, pass, don't get tackled
These strategic goals translate to a lot less kicking than in regular rugby, as well as a lot of passing and an avoidance of getting tackled or otherwise tying the ball up or losing possession. One of the most exciting aspects of sevens is that it is possible to score a try from literally anywhere on the pitch, even deep in one’s own try zone. So few players on the pitch translates to no assistance on defense, so if the offense finds itself with one player on defense isolated against two players on offense – one of whom has the ball – the offense can very easily turn that momentary advantage into a try, even from deep in their own territory.
For the love of all that is holy, don't kick
This emphasis on possession over territory is what obviates the need for tactical kicking. Having good field position is nice in sevens, but it is not necessary; a skillful sevens side can hold the ball for literally an entire half (only seven minutes, remember), biding its time and waiting for a crack in the defense to open up, and know that the worst outcome of such a situation would be a 0-0 tie. This option can seem even more attractive if the side happens to be playing somewhere hot and/or humid, and want to conserve their energy.
Who in Their Right Mind Would Play Sevens?
Energy conservation is an important part of sevens strategy as well, for even though the matches themselves are only 15 minutes in length, most sevens is played in a tournament format, and sides might play anywhere from three to six matches in a single day. If that seems like a lot of running to you, well, it is. That’s why sevens players tend to be relatively smaller and thinner, especially those who play the three “backline” positions – flyhalf, center,, and wing, – with the pack positions filled either by people who normally play center in the backs or flanker or number 8 in the forwards.
Because size is not as important in sevens, and because the pool of players needed to establish a side is not as large as in regular rugby, sevens is a useful way for smaller nations – or those nations new to rugby – to hoist themselves into the global spotlight. Fiji, for example, consistently turns out one of the best national sevens sides, as does Kenya, two countries that otherwise struggle to mount a decent national side. But that’s another one of the great things about sevens: it brings people into rugby who might not otherwise play. And when it comes to rugby, the more, the merrier.