Can the Kings of the Sevens concept survive and even flourish in the future?

Alan Lorimer reflects on the 2023-24 series and wonders what the future holds for the abbreviated game in Scotland

The creation of a South of Scotland Barbarians team to compete at Melrose Sevens was a masterstroke. Image: Bryan Robertson
The creation of a South of Scotland Barbarians team to compete at Melrose Sevens was a masterstroke. Image: Bryan Robertson

THERE goes another Kings of the Sevens season and as with the conclusion of any annual event, thoughts will already turn to what will happen next year. The usual issues will be discussed but what will be on the minds of serious thinkers is the existential threat facing the whole Kings concept. Regicide it seems is not without possibility.

Those future gazers already surveying the rugby landscape next season will have recognised that a 12 team Premiership poses an immediate problem, albeit that it is not yet known what format the fifteens top tier will adopt. Will it be a straight-through Premiership of 22 matches or will there be a half-way split that will reduce the number of games played? Furthermore will there be a Cup competition and will play-offs continue to be a feature of the Premiership?

Rather like the encroachment of agriculture on the periphery of the Amazon rainforest, the lengthening of the fifteens season does indeed threaten the future of sevens rugby. Does this matter? Well, it’s worth remembering that sevens rugby is both an Olympic and Commonwealth Games sport whereas fifteens is not. Admittedly Olympic sevens is a GB matter but every four years Scotland will be required to put together a sevens squad and one not necessarily wholly drawn from the pro teams. The best of the amateurs are still in with a shout.


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But it is what sevens rugby imparts to its participants that is so important. Accurate handling, spatial awareness, support running and one-on-one defence, all magnified in sevens rugby, are essential qualities that players in the abbreviated code must possess. And that’s not to mention the specific fitness levels required to run yourself into the ground over 14 minutes. These are all transferable to fifteens rugby and undoubtedly add to the armoury of players in the full-sized game.

That’s sevens rugby in general. But what about the circuit dubbed The Kings of the Sevens?  The post competition wash-up will always include the number of tournaments that make up the series, currently amounting to 10 – two in the autumn and eight in the spring – and regarded by many as being too many. And that’s a point that chimes with messages about player welfare. Quantity over quality may be good for overall income but not so beneficial for battered bodies.

It is not actually the number of tournaments that attracts criticism, but rather the doubling up of tournaments over weekends. Kelso on a Saturday and Earlston the following day is asking too much of amateur players and inevitably it distorts the results and hence the standings.

The other big issue is one of quality control, something that is not always guaranteed. In which context Kevin Barrie, who coached Jed-Forest to the final of their own tournament last weekend, believes that there needs to be incentives to attract the top teams.

Barrie thinks that the status quo is not only a tired format but is unsustainable. “If we want to have the best teams you have to attract them. Good teams like Edinburgh Accies, Heriot’s and Watsonians are coming down regularly but should we put a purse on a tournament. Money, I think, would attract the best teams from Edinburgh,” he said.

“In the current set-up, not everyone is playing in every tournament,” says Barrie, the implication being that as in the World Series, a core group of teams would appear throughout the Kings and ‘guest teams’ as appropriate.

“As it is there have been some really good tournaments this season. Look at Selkirk and Kelso and Jed, all really good sevens tournaments and well supported. But if we want sevens to grow, we’ve got to grow the teams and the teams have got to get better.”

That reference again to quality by Barrie raises the question of whether it would be possible to have a senior circuit and, let’s say, a parallel competition for lower division sides. That could mean Berwick, Langholm and Earlston dropping out of the official Kings circuit. Earlston, in particular, might object, and rightly so after staging what was regarded as one of the best tournaments in the Borders this season, with guest sides, Durham University and The Auld Stars (eventual winners) challenging the regular teams to step up their game.

It could, of course, be possible to have these so-called second tier tournaments in the calendar but not counting as part of the Kings points tally, allowing perhaps for more established clubs to enter 2nd VIIs and thus increase the number of players participating in the abbreviated game.

 

 

As we all know, it was Melrose that started all this sevens stuff – as a means of raising funds for their club – but ironically it is the Greenyards club that, in the view of many, is now the proverbial fly in the sevens ointment. For some in the Borders, Melrose, traditionally regarded by the outside world as the blue riband of sevens tournaments, has over-glitzed what was always a tournament that provided additional glamour to the circuit by attracting big names to compete under equally big-named banners.

That appeal was strong in the amateur days when the likes of Melrose or Kelso or Gala contained international players capable of lighting up any event or gifted newbies giving notice of future rugby stardom. The attraction was that there was always a local club who could cut down the giant reputation of the guest sides and that in turn  ensured there was an enthralled audience right through to the final.

Now, however, in an attempt to move on from its traditional format, Melrose have created a tournament in which local teams are squeezed out by professional outfits, most of whose players, while being highly skilful operators, are barely known to the fans who attend the Greenyards event.

One regular Melrose Sevens watcher, after observing the 2024 edition summed up the feeling of many, by saying: “They seem to be doing a pretty decent job of building the party vibe, but I’m not sure if that is helped by their being too many guest sides, meaning Scottish teams out early and clubs thinking: why bother trying to make a day of it? The guest sides need to add value in terms of something the crowd can buy into,  otherwise they would much rather see a Watsonians or Edinburgh Accies or Kelso go ‘deep’ into the tournament.”

It is, of course, a difficult juggling act for the Melrose Sevens organisers trying to balance making the tournament a sparkling event (and a financial success), different from the other Borders sevens tournaments, and simultaneously ensuring that Scottish clubs sides are not competitively snuffed out. Such an objective was achievable in the past: surely it can be now, even in the professional era.

If the feeling that Melrose has either alienated much of its traditional audience or lost some of its once unique lustre, then that appears to be reinforced by fixture decisions for next season. The Melrose Sevens used to be a sacrosanct day on the Scottish rugby calendar such was its worldwide reknown, but as from next season the second Saturday in April will not be ring-fenced, making it less likely that clubs from outwith the Borders will be willing or indeed able to support the annual jamboree at The Greenyards.

Perhaps this could be read as a symptom of Murrayfield’s attitude towards sevens rugby but unless there is a recognition by Scottish Rugby that sevens has a legitimate place in the calendar then the survival of the Kings will continue to be in question.

 

 

Calum Anderson, who coached Melrose this season, and is a Scotland sevens cap, thinks that some time is needed between the end of the fifteens season and the start of the sevens circuit.  “Every year the season gets longer and that gives us little time to prepare for sevens. So at the start of the sevens season the standard is poor because we don’t have time for preparation. But some of the tournaments this season were fantastic. And very well supported,” he said.

The Kings circuit is certainly grateful for the continued presence of Edinburgh Accies, Watsonians (past Kings winners) and almost to the same degree, Heriot’s, but thus far there has been no move to offset the endless travelling undertaken by these three capital clubs by staging at least one round of the Kings in the Scottish capital – a sunny day at The Hive perhaps?

Ultimately, if the Kings circuit is to prosper then there must be some accommodation between those who want a longer fifteens season and those who wish to see sevens rugby flourish. But more than that, there needs to be a freshening up of the Kings circuit, a raising of standards and a search for clubs who are willing to buy into serious sevens. Could, for example, a student side be a part of the core group of clubs competing for the crown. Edinburgh University certainly impressed at Earlston and were only a whisker away from stopping Melrose in the semi-final at Jed.

Then there is the perennial question of format. Should the tournaments be straight knock-out or should pools be the preferred shape. The former certainly makes for crowd excitement but must surely be a disincentive for teams travelling in from more distant parts. The arguments for a pool format is that sixteen teams (often difficult to muster) are not necessary and that each team is guaranteed at least two ties if the model of four groups of three is adopted.

More complicated but in many ways more interesting would be three groups of four, in which points difference becomes a deciding factor and which would give each participating team at least three games. And as a point of information, all international tournaments are run on a pool format.


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About Alan Lorimer 360 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.

17 Comments

  1. 7s should stay and not just the Ko7s

    There are way more 7s tournaments on each weekend in Apr / May than just the Ko7s. They are great for clubs as earners to swell their meagre coffers and the players love playing in them. You will never stop those. Look at Mull 7s last weekend – what an event.

    Having coached in the Kings this year with more junior players because our 1sts were still in the Cup even on the same weekend as Melrose its tough and travelling from Edinburgh to the Borders to play one tie is tough. Tough to travel, tough to get better. One tie is not enough to review and change for the better. It’s also tough seeing select sides that are almost dead certs to progress or even win – Melrose / Earlston to name a few. Our team has several 18 year olds involved who looked great – just stepping up to play with men for the first time.

    Pools would be way better – more game time, more opportunity to improve. Mull / Haddington / E Northern all ran that way and were supported by big named Clubs.

    The demise of the S6 may change the landscape next season with a stronger pool of players available overall. Let’s see – the size of the leagues next season may see 15s long into April.

    Long live 7s

  2. It should survive and even include Walkerburn. Bin the men’s Cup ls, nobody is interested least of all the SRU.
    A tournament in the capital would be good but there is already the Northern 7s which is nearly 70 years old. Believe they’ve tried similar events in the summer?

    • Where have you been Bernie? 10 teams leagues are scheduled to end in January. Its only bad weather than stopped that.

      There are a couple of leagues that have 8 teams. They are done by December!

  3. Personally I am a big fan of 7s and hope it keeps its place in the calendar but without clashes with the end of the 15s season that we have had in recent years. Hopefully then the likes of Hawick & Currie can commit fully and with no super 6 it should be more competitive with some good quality players across the board. You could argue the standard has dropped recently and one criticism of this season is that it has been dominated by a few clubs, I don’t think there has been a final (except Melrose) that didn’t feature either Kelso or Melrose.

    I agree with Calum Anderson that huge credit must go to Watsonians, Accies & Heriots who support all tournaments and send good sides down every week. It would be great have a kings tournament in Edinburgh but no idea how to fit this into an already congested circuit.

    As for Melrose, I think everyone in agreement that their tournament needs revamped and I believe they are looking into different options so be interesting to see what next season brings.

  4. The 7’s is part of a club season issue which must be addressed. There is still a huge appetite amongst young men and women for our game however we have to start questioning why it takes 30/40/50 + players to complete a season. The season needs to be shortened and less travel to fit in with the modern players life style. Club season Sept- end March. Less National leagues and more proper regional leagues. District championship in December/ January. The 7’s ( of which I am a fan of) April/ May. Is there room for 10 King of the 7’s tournaments I don’t know the answer.

    • Iain. We know your preference is for local leagues. Please do the work and provide populated local leagues to support your point.

      Summary – it’s not that easy and would result in mismatches specifically in Midlands.

      I’m sure OSL would give you a platform for your work to start the debate.

  5. Make the 7s a development opportunity for u21/23 players as so many drop out after u18s as they’re simply not physically ready for adult rugby and keeps the player pool as big as possible?

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  6. Why not have 7s as a summer sport? Most players I would wager would welcome a break immediately after the 15s season but as soon as the weather picks up I’ll bet plenty are itching to have a run around in late May and early June sunshine.

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  7. Good article Alan as always.
    Personally I think we need to accept that next season needs to be a one off until we get the leagues re-arranged.
    After that I think it is possible to have 10 team XV a side leagues played from September to January, with a break around Christmas. With the success of Friday Night games for both pro teams and some Super Series fixtures, it would definitely be possible to have some league fixtures played on Friday nights in the weeks of the Autumn internationals so that fixtures can be completed by end January but there are still opportunities for players to play a club game AND get to an international on the same weekend.

    In February I would play 3 rounds of inter district championship with the guys from those fixtures competing to be selected for two Scottish Club International fixtures (one home and one away) in March as the pinnacle of the club game.

    I wonder as a skills development tool if the SRU put money into 7s circuits in April/May. Certainly the borders, and if possible other circuits in the West, East and even the North…..you could have 6 core teams in each and a 6 week circuit with 2 guest teams at each tournament. At the end of the 6 weeks the best 8 teams in Scotland get invited to a national 7s finals tournament at the Hive to determine the 7s champions for that season. All done and dusted by 3rd week of May. Summer Off.

    I know I don’t have a cup tournament in there; it would need to be decided if it ran alongside Interdistrict tournament (so the I/D players didn’t play in it) or if it was just a competition for lower leagues (below Premier and National 1) to complete the season in February and March.

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    • Definitely no
      To Friday night fixtures, I would never get to the games in time and get home again by public transport one of the biggest attractions of club rugby for mr in 2-3 kick of on Saturday every Saturday and constitutes a day out that I look forward to every week

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  8. I think there still is a place for 7s. In what format, I’m not sure. The 7s has always been great as long as teams have been able to field their best players. The past 2 years at least you see Hawick for example, having to put out 7s teams with not just players from the 2nds but from Hawick Linden and Hawick Harlequins too. Paying the price for success? Probably. But you’d think clubs like Hawick would like to put out a strong side if it was possible.
    As for Melrose, I think it needs pulled from the Kings circuit. As mentioned, the teams who have supported the tournament since its conception are now getting a rough deal. It’s all a money maker. The fan experience is all geared towards drink and partying and the rugby is forgotten about.

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  9. Personally I’m a big fan of 7s and hopefully it keeps its place on the calendar but for me it needs the 15s season to be finished by the end of March / beginning of April. This season the kings wasn’t competitive enough and dominated by a few sides, there wasn’t a final (with the exception of Melrose) that didn’t feature either Kelso or Melrose. Hopefully if they can do this next season and with no super 6, it will make it much more competitive and higher quality.

    I agree with Calum Anderson, massive credit should go to Watsonians, Accies & Heriots who send sides to every tournament and it would be great to reward them with a tournament in Edinburgh, although no idea where this could fit in with 8 spring tournaments already.

  10. It’s like every decision has a consequence. 12 team league! Knock yourself out folks. All it’s going to take is a few postponements due to weather for the great “plan” to go sideways.

    There should be space to play 7s but there are only so many Saturdays available. 17 before Christmas. Minus 3 for Autumn Tests = 14. Then 12 to end March. Minus 3 for Home 6N. = 9 Total 23 Saturdays. So one to spare. But unlikely to get through winter without postponements. So more likely mid to late April to complete the league.

  11. As a long time follower of the Kings of the 7’s, I don’t believe there is a great deal wrong with the current format…these events are essential earners to the host clubs and go along way to support the infrastructure of the 15’s season.

    Personally, I enjoy the variation in formats ..knock out or pool.
    I accept there is an argument that the Melrose tournament should not be part of the ‘Kings’ as the draw can regularly advantage their own team…although this year it didn’t!!….and I would suggest that all draws are carried out by an independent source rather than the host club.

    Apart from that…I’m looking forward to the Peebles & Gala tournaments in August.

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    • 7s is the potential key to boosting both finances and participation and not just in borders. Time to give it a more structured slot in the season and really push it forward.

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