The hidden history of Sevens and 'short-form' rugby

This post was originally published on on 21 August 2010.

Although Wednesday’s Carnegie 9s is one of rugby league’s newest competitions, it builds on a tradition of ‘limited player’ or 'short form' rugby that dates back over 130 years.

Today, the seven-a-side rugby union circuit is a never-ending smorgasbord of corporate hospitality junkets and, of course, the 'short form' game will be played at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Open any match programme or web page about sevens and you'll be told that the limited player version of rugby was invented in Melrose in Scotland in April 1883.

But that’s not quite true.

Although the idea to have seven players per side may have started in Melrose, that was certainly neither the first nor even the only version of limited player rugby.

Huddersfield again

If anything, Melrose was behind the times. In fact, it appears that the first type of 'short form' rugby began with a six-a-side tournament in Huddersfield in 1879.

This first six-a-side tournament took place on 13 September 1879 and was organised by Huddersfield Cricket & Athletic Club (the foreunner of today’s Huddersfield Giants).

Leeds, Dewsbury, Bradford (today’s Bulls), Leeds St Johns (today’s Rhinos), Huddersfield themselves, Bradford Juniors and Kirkstall entered for the chance to win six silver cups, with six leather bags for the runners-up. Playing regular rugby rules in ten-minute halves, Huddersfield's six over-ran Leeds 23-0 in the final.

Other six-a-side tournaments were played over the next three or four years, with Dewsbury, Bramley, Cleckheaton, Wakefield and Leeds Parish Church all hosting contests. Six-a-sides were played during the summer, usually at athletic carnivals, with the aim of raising money for the club or, more often, for local hospital charities.

When Six became Nine

But by the mid-1880s the popularity of six-a-sides appears to have been eclipsed by the nine-a-side form of the game.

In August 1881 Batley staged the first nine-a-side tournament. Seven clubs entered, competing for a first prize of nine Vienna Regulators (a type of pendulum wall clock), valued at £2 10s each, and nine gentleman's travelling bags for the runners-up.

Dewsbury defeated Batley in the final, but the match ended in uproar, as Batley historian C.F. Shaw described in his 1899 book The Gallant Youths:

The Batley men declared that three points had to be obtained before a win could be claimed. This view was stoutly opposed by Dewsbury, and when the referee, a Mr Bentley of Heckmondwike, was appealed to, he waived his decision which so exasperated a certain section f the crowd that a free fight ensued. The referee was expected to attend a meeting of the Batley committee, but failed to make his appearance, as he had received several threatening letters in regard to the contest; and the committee decided to submit the matter to the editor of the Athletic News, and abide by his decision, which was given in favour of Dewsbury

Batley became the centre of summer 9s competitions. In 1885 two to three thousand people gathered at Batley Town Hall to see them receive the silver trophy from the mayor. The fact they had defeated Barrow in the final showed the appeal of the limited player game to fans and clubs alike.

Nine-a-side tournaments were staged throughout the 1880s in Leeds, Castleford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield and also in Lancashire, attracting large crowds and raising thousands of pounds for local charities.

Union authorities cut nines down to size

So why did nines die out? As you might guess, the leadership of rugby union were not keen on limited player contests.

This was due to two reasons. Most tournaments were played outside of the regular season using modified rules, thus undermining the official leadership of the game. For example, the 1881 Batley tournament was played under a point-scoring system. A converted try was worth eight points, a goal was six and an unconverted try four. But at this time, official rugby union rules only counted goals as a method of scoring.

The second problem for the authorities was that the limited player contests were suspected of professionalism. The prizes were often valuable and it was well-known that players would often simply sell-on the clocks and medals for their cash value.

And some tournaments even offered cash prizes, strictly against RFU rules. Wakefield's 1882 six-a-side contest saw the winning Thornes' players pick up two pounds each.

In August 1890, the Yorkshire Rugby Union suspended eight teams for playing in a summer six-a-side tournament. The following month the Lancashire Rugby Union outlawed limited player contests. Feelings ran 'very strongly against the nine-a-side game during the closed season and it was decided that in future no more contests be allowed during the summer,' stated a Lancashire spokesman.

This marked the end of the line for sixes and nines, early victims of the convulsions in rugby that would be caused by the RFU's campaign for pure amateurism.

Innovation and Tradition

The limited player version of rugby continued only in the Border region of Scotland, where it spread to other towns in the area after emerging in Melrose.

Isolated from the rugby union mainstream, the Borders seven-a-side version of the game continued largely unnoticed until 1926, when, freed of its previous associations with rule-changes and professionalism, limited player rugby was allowed back into English rugby union with the start of the Middlesex Sevens.

But, as with so many innovations in rugby, the initial impulse for limited player rugby came from those clubs in the north of England who were to revolutionise the sport and found the Northern Union.

Rugby union may have forgotten its own history but, when you go down to Headingley to watch this year's Carnegie 9s on Wednesday, take a few seconds to remember that you're watching one of rugby's oldest innovations and longest lasting traditions.