Womens Sports History

A History of Rugby – Part 3

Emma Tonegato of Australia braces herself for New Zealand tackle in the final match at Atlanta 7s. Photo: Mike Lee @ KLC Fotos.

The growth of the ‘Sevens’ format has boosted the popularity of rugby in a year when the sport made its Olympic debut

by Penny Hopkins

“The game, remarkably, does not pull any punches when played by women.” Canada Women’s Sevens

It is, officially, a phenomenon. Rugby sevens continues to rise in popularity worldwide and in July 2016 it reached a new peak in front of a global audience of 3.5 billion when it made its debut at the Rio Olympic Games.

The games are fast, furious and exciting and the rules are easy to understand.

This is a far cry from its humble beginnings. Sevens was first played in 1883 in Melrose, Scotland, and the Melrose Sevens tournament is still held annually. At first it did not get much traction, but by the 1920s people were starting to take notice. In 1926, the first Middlesex Sevens was held although the first officially sanctioned tournament surprisingly didn’t take place until 1973 as the International Seven-A-Side Tournament at Murrayfield which was part of the “Scottish Rugby Union’s Celebration of Rugby” centenary celebrations. In the 1970s the Hong Kong Sevens also began and the game never looked back. The Rugby World Cup Sevens was first held in 1993 in Scotland and the World Rugby Sevens Series began in 1999. The game is now widespread in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas and is particularly popular in countries where the pool of players to pick from is somewhat limited.

RELATED:  A History of Rugby – Part 1 & 2

Australia Rugby World 7's Team

As an observer, It’s easy to see why the game is so popular. Competitions can be organised, played and completed over the course of a weekend. The games are fast, furious and exciting and the rules are easy to understand. Many sevens tournaments compete for cup, plate, bowl and shield, which means very often teams have something to play for right up until the end.

Women’s sevens began to develop in the 1960s. And although it was popular, it was not until 1997 that the first women’s sevens internationals were played. This was at the Hong Kong Sevens tournament. Now there are women’s tournaments held all over the world.


The Hong Kong Sevens was dominated by New Zealand for the first ten years. None of the teams were “official” and so the winners of the first two went under the name New Zealand Wild Ducks, then New Zealand for two years and, after that, the next six were won by Aotearoa Maori New Zealand. In 2008 New Zealand did not send a team and it was won for the first and only time by the USA who beat Canada in the final.

The first Women’s Sevens World Cup took place in 2009 in Dubai when it was held as a double-header with the men’s competition. The first winners of the Cup were Australia, who beat New Zealand 15-10 in extra time and the Bowl was won by England who dominated Canada 12-0.

The perceived informality surrounding Rugby Sevens has meant a plethora of tournaments have sprung up, which have included both national and club sides. But it is the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series that has really fired the imagination of the general public.

COMING SOON: Ruck On – The Rugby Show with host; former Canadian International Maria Samson

It was launched as an annual competition in the 2012/13 season and the inaugural series held events in Dubai, USA, China and Netherlands. Since then there has been some rotation of host countries. There was an additional event in Brazil for the 2013/14 series and the following year China was dropped when Canada and England became new hosts.

“Everyone involved wants to make sure both formats are improving. In the end it’s not a format we’re looking at, it’s England. It looks bad if England 15s don’t do well. You also need a good women’s 15s structure to ensure enough sevens players come through.”


In 2015/16 only five events took place with England and The Netherlands dropping out while France added an event. New Zealand has again dominated so far, winning the first three World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. Australia beat the holders in the final to claim the fourth trophy, capping a fabulous year for the Aussies as they won both the Series and the 2016 Rio Olympic gold medal.

In the Rugby Sevens Plan 2011-2020, four specific strategies are identified as vital to growing the women’s game

The 2016/17 series comprises five rounds again:

Dubai: 1-2 December, 2016
Sydney: – 3-4 February, 2017
Kitakyushu, Japan: 23-24 April, 2017
Langford, Canada: 27-28 April, 2017
Clermont-Ferrand, France: 24-25 June, 2017

The teams involved will be Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, France, USA, Russia, Fiji, Spain, Brazil and Ireland. There will be a twelfth team invited to each round.

Rugby 7s Test Event in Rio

The game’s governing body, World Rugby, clearly sees Sevens as an integral part of the women’s game. Its Women’s Rugby Plan 2011-2016 states “Rugby Sevens for women should be identified as a priority for new investment.” Indeed it’s gratifying to note that many of the points raised in this document have now been tackled – gaps identified were lack of access to international competition, no IRB Women’s Sevens International competitions, no Women’s Sevens World Series, lack of High Performance plans and pathways in many Unions.”

In the Rugby Sevens Plan 2011-2020, four specific strategies are identified as vital to growing the women’s game:

  • Creating a pathway so that every girl has the opportunity to play this new Olympic sport
  • Producing resources and programmes to facilitate the playing of the game for young girls
  • Developing a Sevens introductory programme for women and girls
  • Taking an innovative approach to the development and marketing of the women’s game

If these objectives can be met in the specified timeframe, the game will then be truly global and could rival soccer and cricket in popularity for girls.

So far, so positive, but this level of success brings responsibility and some in the game have expressed concern that the Sevens is burgeoning at the expense of the 15-a-side version, particularly in the women’s game, much as Twenty20 cricket has almost replaced test cricket.

Everyone involved wants to make sure both formats are improving.

Rugby 7s_AUS

In January 2016, The Guardian newspaper ran a story headlined: ‘Women’s rugby at sixes and sevens as focus on Olympics splits loyalties.’ The England team was just about to start its Six Nations campaign with some of their major players away in sevens competition. Former England player Maggie Alphonsi is one who is quoted as having misgivings:

“What we’ll see in this Six Nations might not be as competitive as it would have been. You’ll probably see Italy and Wales do really well because England, France and Ireland will all be involved with Sevens.

“Everyone involved wants to make sure both formats are improving. In the end it’s not a format we’re looking at, it’s England. It looks bad if England 15s don’t do well. You also need a good women’s 15s structure to ensure enough sevens players come through.”

In the same article, Ireland captain Niamh Briggs takes an opposing view:

“Sonny Bill Williams is playing sevens for New Zealand this weekend and people want to go and see something like that. Then they see the brand of rugby on show and they want to play it. OK, it’s a different style but it’s still rugby and their contracted players are training every day; unlike what we’re doing. That can only make them better, more skilful, fitter and stronger. If that can transfer into 15s it can only be a good thing.”

England Rugby Team (England Rugby/Getty Images)

England Rugby Team

Great Britain returning empty-handed from Rio has certainly added fuel to this particular fire and the disquiet is not just being felt in the northern hemisphere.

Last month, the Australian women’s 15-a-side team were defeated 67-3 by the Black Ferns in the first of a two test series and 29-3 in the second. The Rio Sevens gold was indeed won by Australia but the full side had not played a test match since 2014 and were outplayed at every position.

But this does not seem to be an issue to the Australian Rugby Union (ARU), which announced in June that it will launch a full-time professional domestic women’s sevens competition in 2017. It will work in conjunction with the country’s universities and will comprise eight teams with squads of 20 players.

With the women leading the way, a similar men’s competition will follow in 2018, and in line with World Rugby, the ARU recently announced its intention to target Sevens to help grow the women’s game.

Women’s Rugby Sevens will make its debut at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast.

The trajectory of the popularity and development of Rugby Sevens is clearly upward and it is good to see so many of rugby’s national governing bodies committing to its women’s sides, but there is the persistent notion abroad that the game could still prove to be a threat to the more traditional version. If we take cricket as a parallel, this threat could be very real – the amount of time in the cricket calendar, the resources, the sponsorship and the audiences devoted to Twenty20 are increasing year on year, largely at the expense of test cricket. Is the sevens situation reaching this level? Probably not yet, but it is something of which World Rugby will have to be very much aware or face the consequences.

In the final part of  this series we look at women’s rugby in the twenty-first century; where it has come from and its aspirations for the future.


Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series

World Rugby

Women’s 6 Nations Championship

Hong Kong Rugby Sevens

Women’s Rugby on Wikipedia


Penny Hopkins is a British freelance writer with leanings towards cricket and women’s history.
Photos: World Rugby, Getty Images
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