AHEAD of the final round of the Kings of the Sevens competition, Jed-Forest’s outgoing president, Paul Cranston, admitted, that standards on the circuit had fallen short of what was achieved in previous seasons. Without doubt most of those listening to Cranston’s words knew exactly that the malaise in sevens had everything to do with an overlong league season extending to the end of April, and eating into the time of year traditionally given over to the short game.
In a way, Jed’s own tournament saved some face such was the high quality of sevens rugby on view in the final two rounds of the traditional end-of-circuit event at Riverside, fittingly won by the already crowned Kings, Jed-Forest.
Jed’s route to winning the Kings of the Sevens title this season effectively began at Berwick where the Royal Blues won the Scremerston tournament by defeating Selkirk in the final. The Riverside men then triumphed at Langholm and Kelso before winning the title outright with victory at Selkirk. Then in their own tournament, Jed confirmed their regal status by taking their fifth title of the season when they defeated Edinburgh Accies in a final which, rather late in the day, reached the heights expected of the Kings competition.
In many ways it was no surprise that Jed finished well ahead of the chasing group in the Kings of the Sevens title race. For a start, they finished their fifteens programme in early March meaning they had several weeks to prepare for the opening spring tournament at Melrose. But essentially Jed’s success has been built on accumulated experience, outright pace and a nous that might be expected from a side containing three players with Scotland sevens backgrounds.
Among the chasing group, Melrose who finished second overall, were strong challengers, but in common with Gala and Kelso, Melrose were hampered by involvement in National League One matches during April. Just one point behind in third place were Selkirk, who, coached by Scott Wight, produced a tournament-winning performance at Earlston with a side that contained three teenagers, suggesting that the Philiphaugh side may be the one to watch next season.
Meanwhile, city sides Edinburgh Accies and Currie Chieftains added much to the Kings of the Sevens competition, and with a greater presence and perhaps self-belief could have posed more of a threat. Currie certainly impressed at Melrose where they reached the semi-finals but their participation in the play-offs meant that they were never in the mix for honours on the sevens circuit.
But back to the nub of the problem that produces this clash of rugby cultures: the length of the league season. Quite apart from the way an over lengthy fifteens season impacts on the sevens game, the sheer number of matches – 22 in the 12-team national leagues – is not, in itself, entirely in tune with player welfare.
Club rugby, because of the trickle down effect of the professional game, is becoming ever more physical, in turn making greater demands on amateur players, who, it should be remembered, play the game for recreation and enjoyment. Requiring players to produce a massive physical effort over a period of nine months seems at odds with the objectives of participating in the sport.
Would playing a smaller number of matches increase the quality of rugby in the national leagues while simultaneously taking pressure off players? And would less games decrease the number of injuries that occur and which can make it difficult for clubs with smaller playing squads to fulfil fixtures at the fag end of the season? Consider, too, the effect on pitches: extra usage can be catastrophic for some grounds, meaning that recovery, as for the players that use them, takes longer.
So what to do? The preferred option in Murrayfield’s ongoing season structure review appears to be to reduce the the size of National Leagues from 12 to 10, thus aligning them with the Premiership. But any change would take time, with a season’s notice required.
There is another solution, however, that would obviate the need to resize the National Leagues. A reduction in the number of matches played in a season could be achieved in a stroke by splitting the league at the half way point. Thus in a 12-team league, 11 matches would be played before the league divides into the top 6 and the bottom 6. In effect the top six becomes a play-off shoot-out and the bottom six a relegation battle. It would mean that clubs of similar standard (and ambition) would be grouped together making for better competition.
In the numbers game this would result in 11 matches in the first part of the season and then 5 once the split occurred giving a total of 16 games. If it was felt that this was not enough then play-offs with the league above and league below could occur, albeit this would not involve all clubs in a league.
However, all this might not be to the liking of club treasurers, who would view a shrinking in the number of matches as meaning a drop in revenue over the season. And with cashflow a problem for most clubs it would be difficult to argue against such a view.
Of course, all of the above assumes that it is worth assigning part of the season to sevens rugby. Would all clubs buy into having the late part of the season devoted to sevens rugby or is the short game merely a Borders obsession? It is understandable that the Borders clubs would want to hang on to what is part of the region’s cultural heritage, and which at its best provides a usefully different form of rugby and an important source of revenue for tournament hosts.
But beyond local culture and politics the reality is that unlike the fifteens game sevens rugby is both an Olympic and Commonwealth Games sport, participation in which is, however small, a cash source for Scottish Rugby. Moreover, when taken seriously, as Scotland did several seasons ago, notably producing a World Series win at Twickenham against South Africa in a sensational final, success in the sevens game can be a source of inspiration.
Nor should sevens, with its emphasis on pace and exploitation of space, be underestimated as a vehicle for developing potential professional players. For sevens to assume this role proper investment at a national level is required but it seems that Murrayfield is at most lukewarm when it comes to fully backing the short game.
So will club sevens survive or will the onward creep of the fifteens game simply snuff out the short game with the consequent knock-on effect at national level? The on-going debate about the size of the National Leagues is not just about how much rugby is being played currently (and this is very much about the sustainability of rugby in Scotland), but crucially about creating space for a variant of rugby that offers a different version of the oval ball game and one in which Scotland could do well if it is encouraged at grassroots and financed at top level.