AS Mark Robertson and Scott Wight raised the London World Series Sevens’ trophy proudly above their heads on Sunday evening, after prevailing at Twickenham for the second consecutive year, it was a poignant reminder of just how integral the shortened game is to Scottish rugby. Whilst the two aforementioned Scots hail from Melrose, the birthplace of Sevens rugby and a town which will forever be synonymous with the sport, you cannot underestimate the role that smaller tournaments have played in keeping the game alive in places such as the Isle of Mull.
Located over 200 miles north-west of Melrose, the remote Inner Hebridean Island is perhaps best known for being home to the popular children’s television series, Balamory. For fans of the oval-ball, however, the island has long been a Sevens mecca. Formed in 1985, the tournament quickly gained the reputation as being ‘the world’s most sociable Sevens’ – an epithet that has stuck and for good reason. With both a men’s and woman’s tournament; an annual fancy-dress theme (this year was the topical selection of Trumps and Tarts) and a vibrant tented village, the party ethos is more than just a nifty slogan.
The tournament has transformed significantly since it’s inception 32 years ago. Back then, Donald Trump was still simply a loud-mouthed billionaire and rugby on Mull was in its infancy. That was until former Scotland and Lions’ stand-off, John Rutherford – a long time visitor to the island – decided to introduce his chums, and fellow internationalists, to Hebridean rugby. With the likes of John Beattie, Andy Irvine, Roger Baird and Roy Laidlaw making the trip north, the first ever Mull Sevens was played and the rest, as they say, is history.
Whilst few Scotland internationalists grace Garmony’s weather-beaten pitches these days (although Rob Wainwright often turns out for the neighbouring island of Coll), one thing has never changed: Mull and its community’s passion for Sevens rugby. Tom Nelson, the club’s president, who is more likely to be found flipping venison burgers than schmoozing with visiting officials, is a testimony to this enthusiasm.
The effervescent Nelson has just completed his tenth season at the helm and he explained just why the Mull Sevens continues to attract teams from across the country.
“Its reputation and people know they are going to have a great time here,” he states, “It really is the world’s most sociable sevens and that is not just some strap-line that has been made up. When you come to Mull Sevens you know your whole team is going to have a brilliant time. It’s not just a one-day event – teams will arrive on Friday night, we’ll feed them free of charge and then they won’t head home until the Sunday morning. I think we must have had around 80 tents around our pitch this year.”
“We have a great lunch before the Sevens kicks-off and absolutely all the food is donated. It is a banquet that you’re not going to get anywhere else. We’re not just going to serve you a cheap burger here – it’s all local meat and as good as you’ll find anywhere.”
“I think the Sevens will always be fantastic and luckily people still want to play because we offer something completely different. It is an amazing experience to come camp next to the pitch and play in such picturesque surroundings,” he adds.
Not content with playing the role of grateful hosts, Mull’s Sevens side have enjoyed an unprecedented run of success. After winning the tournament in 2012 for the first time since 1989, the island outfit have reached the final four out of the last five years, and on Saturday narrowly missed out on adding their name to the Gruline Cup once again, after falling short to Edinburgh touring side Brown Trouts in a pulsating final.
“I think in Mull we aspire to play real rugby, and it’s probably a Sevens style of rugby, not unlike you would find in the Borders,” says Mull’s head coach, Fergus White. “We really try to move the ball and that dovetails into our Sevens play. We have a real passion for that version of the game and it starts from playing tag rugby at a young age, right through to the senior side.”
“The Sevens is massive for us, and you can see that there is a fair chunk of the island down supporting us. The community really does get behind us – it’s their rugby club too and that’s a big difference.”
“I think, as much as anything, it’s an adventure for most teams to come here. It’s that journey, and getting on that ferry, that makes teams keep on coming back. It’s like heading to a foreign land – only with midges and rain!”
The journey might add some appeal to the Sevens, but it can have a disruptive effect on the regular season. With several call-offs (which resulted in Clydesdale being expelled from the BT West Division Four) and unfulfilled fixtures, the island outfit has been forced to endure a frustrating 2016-17 campaign, with only seven league fixtures completed and only one in the current calendar year – but the ever-optimistic Nelson believes there will always be light at the end of the tunnel (despite Argyll and Bute being far from immune to rugby’s ever-changing rugby landscape).
“Rugby in Mull is still pretty strong and there is a real willingness to play but we fight against the SRU and the league system to make it happen,” he says. “Mull rugby is strong in spite of the powers that be. It’s really the lack of interest in rural rugby that is incredibly frustrating”
“The problems we face are teams travelling to Mull because we’ve had so many call-offs this year. We’re not desperate to gain promotion to the national leagues, we’re just desperate for young guys to come through our ranks and keep our senior side going.”
“In the last ten years we’ve come on leaps and bounds. We’ve refurbished our entire clubhouse – it now has a balcony and a view that would probably be the envy of most clubs in Scotland. I really do believe the Sevens will always be popular. This year was probably the busiest I’ve seen it in a long time and why wouldn’t you want to come to Mull?”
It’s clear that visiting teams feel the same way. Mull might be a long way from the glitz and glamour of Hong-Kong, Dubai or London – but it will always be ‘the world’s most sociable Sevens’.