Rugby played seven-a-side is recognised to have begun in 1883 in the Scottish town of Melrose. While in Australia interest in 7s began to rise in the 1980s, it is perhaps surprising to say that the game was first played under southern skies not long after the Melrose RFC hosted its inaugural tournament.

Organised reduced ‘limited sides’ Rugby, and in football generally, was not an entirely new concept in 1883.

In traditional English folk football matches in Australia in the 1840s-50s, teams were played by any number of interested men and boys, often for cash prizes.

The game of foot-ball came next — Mr Hobson being the umpire on one side, and Mr McGillivray on the other. There were six players on each side — the arena was the cricket ground, in the centre of which the ball was placed, and the players stood facing each other at opposite angles of the ground. As the play proceeded, it looked 10 to 1 in favour of Hobson’s side, but one of McGillivray’s party happened to give the ball a turn; it was taken up by Giles, another of McGillivray’s players, who managed to kick it through the proper panel [goal], and so won the game. Prize, £3, (entrance fee 3s).
Geelong Advertiser,
21 November 1850

Rugby historian Tony Collins has found that, particularly in the north of England, Rugby clubs were contesting games of six- and nine-a-side from at least 1879.

As at Melrose, Rugby clubs in the Australasian colonies in the late 1800s often closed their season by holding an athletic sports carnival or picnic amongst the players and their friends.

A novel advance on that norm was the concept of a tournament solely for sevens Rugby games. On the last Saturday of September in 1890, the Otago RFU in New Zealand held a thirteen team 7s charity tournament at the Caledonian Ground in South Dunedin.

Mentions of other 7s games and tournaments are far from uncommon in New Zealand through the 1890s and well into the 1900s. In 1894 the Otago RFU even toyed for a while with the pioneering idea of “holding a seven a-side tournament under electric light.”

Less than a decade after the first 7s tournament in Scotland, the game was being played in Australia. However, it wasn’t in the major Rugby communities of Sydney or Brisbane, but in the central Queensland coastal town of Rockhampton.

The idea of C.A. Mathias, secretary of the Central Queensland RFU, was for Rockhampton’s three clubs (Wanderers, Berserkers & Waratahs) to play seven a-side matches to raise funds for the local hospital.

Mathias, in his late 20s, was a member of the Wanderers club, and a prominent figure on and off the field – just a year earlier The Capricornian newspaper had declared: “Mathias may almost be considered the father of Rugby football in Rockhampton.”

Mathias, London-born, had migrated to Queensland in 1883, and quickly set about organising Rugby in Rockhampton. In 1890, a work transfer saw Mathias spend most of the year in Melbourne working for the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency. Whether Mathias was already aware of Melrose’s 7s or other limited sides Rugby before he left England, or whether his Kiwi co-workers in Melbourne alerted him to the rise of the abbreviated form of the game across the Tasman, is not known.

On 4 July 1891 at Rockhampton’s ‘Union Ground’ (now Browne Park), according to the Morning Bulletin “there was a very large attendance of spectators, including a goodly percentage of the fairer sex” to watch the 7s games. The Rockhampton Brass Band provided musical treats.

On the field Mathias was a power, scoring two tries and landing four conversion goals as his Wanderers team easily accounted for Berserkers and Waratahs, who both failed to register a point. “Though the matches were rather something new the play was rather tame, perhaps in consequence of being one-sided,” offered the Morning Bulletin reporter.

Over the next two decades Rockhampton continued to frequently hold 7s tournaments, including in 1914 where the innovation of a schools contest was introduced (played by Christian Brothers, Leichhardt, Central School and Allenstown).

While Rockhampton had no qualms, many other parts of the Rugby world were concerned that playing 7s Rugby breached the rules of England’s RFU, who declared in 1896 that it was an act of professionalism to play Rugby with less than fifteen on a team, and also illegal to collect gate-money out of season.

Both rules were stern measures intended to harden the impervious wall building between amateur Rugby and the recently founded rugby league, but in consequence they technically captured and banned seven a-side (with its conjoined taking gate-money for club funds or charities) as professionalism.

Seemingly as no one objected, or pointed out the ‘sin’, tournaments such as those at Melrose in rural Scotland continued without sanction. In New Zealand, the NZRU considered and approved tournaments when it could be shown they were for a charitable cause.

In Australia, the game barely existed, at best part of end-of-season club picnic days, a tradition that had reached as far afield as the Swan RFC in 1898 in Perth. The “Northern Branch” Rugby Union in Newcastle held a 6-a-side competition at the end of 1894, raising funds from gate-takings to distribute to players who had lost work income due to a Rugby-playing injury.

In Sydney in 1910 it was put to the Metropolitan RFU that a sevens tournament between the city’s first grade teams could replace the regular competition rounds when the NSW or Wallabies sides play at home or are away on tour – a time that causes significant disruptions to club teams due to absent ‘first string’ players.

Perhaps in another period the MRU may have adopted the concept, however 1910 was still a time that the game was in bitter battle with the newly formed rugby league, and the MRU (and NSWRU) were not straying from the RFU’s amateurism principles that they had bound themselves too. By 1914 though the two codes had each settled into their own fiefdom, and the MRU implemented the scheme to play club 7s Rugby on the undercard to representative games in Sydney.

The first sevens games were played before the NSW-QLD game at the Sports Ground (now Sydney Football Stadium) on 13 June 1914. The opening match was between Randwick and Eastern Suburbs, followed by North Sydney (now Northern Suburbs) v St George, Newtown v Manly, University v Western Suburbs (now West Harbour), Glebe v South Sydney.

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote of seven aside:

“The game lends itself to a study of tactics, and, as the play is chiefly confined to the backs, and there are so few men on the field, the pace is very fast.”

The point was made – in setting the field and in playing 7s Rugby there isn’t a man to waste.

“The games proved spectacular on account of the even nature of play, and where two speedy men marked one another, as in the case of Sutton (University) and McCauley (Western Suburbs), the race between the two proved most interesting. It gave great scope to the individualist…the open nature of the play (is) appealing to the spectators.”

The series continued a week later, with the addition of Balmain and a team from the Duntroon military college in Canberra. The cadets defeated Sydney University, but by the end of the contests Easts, Wests and Balmain advanced to the final day.

Played before the Wallabies vs All Blacks Test at the Sports Ground, Balmain and Easts met in the sevens final. Unfortunately, a shocking brawl erupted just after half-time. Balmain’s Grimsley was seen to collapse to the ground after being punched in the jaw by an Easts player. While the referee was ordering the Easts man from the field, another fight broke out between two players, and they too were sent-off. As the players neared the touchline they again fought, spectators ran on to the ground to separate them, while many in the crowd hooted at the whole shameful scene. The police then came through the melee to restore order.

Easts won the game, but in the aftermath the MRU suspended one player for life, a second for three years and a third until the end of 1915.

Though reluctance to allow the 7s game continued under RU bodies throughout NSW and Queensland, it found a natural role in the developing Rugby areas as a vehicle to introduce local footballers and schoolboys to the rudiments of the full 15 a-side Rugby – Perth (1929), Launceston (1936), Adelaide (1939) and Canberra (1940) the prominent examples of 7s tournaments starting up. Widely supported annual 7s club festival days were established in Perth (1935 at Cottesloe Oval) and Adelaide (1939 at Jubilee Oval, now part of University of Adelaide).

In 1936 the Manly and Parramatta clubs played a beach Rugby 7s game at South Narrabeen in conjunction with a major surf carnival. The idea apparently took on in many coastal communities in the eastern states, with the Port Adelaide RFC suggesting to the SARU in November 1944 that it should be taken up there too.

© Sean Fagan