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The First Middlesex Sevens

The Middlesex Sevens, which remains one of the best known tournaments for club sides in the world, was first held in 1926. Although this reduced version of rugby had its roots in the Scottish Borders, its conception credited to Ned Haig and David Sanderson, two Scottish butchers from Melrose who contrived it as a fund raising exercise for their club in 1883. Popular as it was in the Borders it took nearly forty years for it to migrate south into England with the Percy Park Sevens in 1921. It was to be a further five years until it finally made its way to London .

The father of the Middlesex Sevens was Dr JA Russell-Cargill, a London based Scot who was also a member of the Middlesex rugby committee and who first tabled the idea of a charity competition to be held in the sevens format in favour of the Middlesex Hospital restoration fund. At this time the tournament was to be limited to clubs from the Middlesex area, but even so the idea was popular and forty nine teams entered their names. This in turn meant that fifteen of them would be fortunate enough to receive byes directly into the second round due to the knock out nature of the competition and its pyramid structure.

It was a tournament requirement that all ties in the first and second rounds were to be completed by April 21st so that he last sixteen sides could be decided in good time for the finals day. The entrants encompassed all the major London clubs, the Hospital’s as well as the old boy’s teams. Some such as Richmond, Lensbury, Bank of England, Rosslyn Park and Harlequins went so far as to field two sides, but few of the players involved had any real previous exposure to, let alone playing experience of, the sevens game itself. Although largely played to the same rules as the fifteen a side game sevens was then, as it is now, far faster paced. Each game was to comprise of two seven minute periods of play with a one minute interval, bar the final which would have ten minute halves. Should a game be drawn at the end of normal play then rolling five minute periods of extra time would commence, the first team to score progressing to the next round. Each team was allowed to nominate one reserve player. In line with standard practise of the time on field substitutions were not allowed, but should a player be injured then the replacement could take the pitch in any subsequent ties that the side faced. With referees such as Frank Potter-Irwin and the Harlequins legend Adrian Stoop lined up a high standard of officiating could also be expected.

With the ground rules set then play could commence in earnest in the preliminary rounds. On 15th April two matches were played at Twickenham stadium as Harlequins took on Harrow in the second round and their second team took on Old Millhillians in a first round match. Both the Harlequins sides prevailed but it must have been a surreal experience to be kicking off at five o’clock on a Wednesday evening in the huge national stadium that dwarfed the one hundred spectators who had come along to see what it was all about. Given that sped and individual ball skills are the essence of sevens it was unsurprising that the novelty of the format did not generally prove a great levelling factor. It was noticeable in the sixteen teams that qualified for the final day that the larger London clubs were well represented along with the Hospitals. Richmond and Harlequins enjoyed the additional cushion of having both their teams reach the final stages but it was still unfamiliar ground.

With the field winnowed to the final sixteen teams preparations could now begin in earnest. Play was scheduled to commence at twenty to two in the afternoon on April 24th. It had been hoped that the Prince of Wales and Prince Arthur of Connaught would be present to add Royal support to this charity event. Unfortunately both were forced to miss the event due to ill health but a good crowd of fifteen thousand had made their way to Twickenham to view the spectacle. Remembering that this was a charity event there was to be no free entrance. Tickets were priced at one shilling each, two for a ringside seat and five in the stands. With a total of fifteen matches planned for the day there was not enough room in the schedule for all of the games to be played at the main stadium so four of the third round ties and two of the quarter finals had to be played at remote locations. Old Merchant Taylors v Old Blues and Richmond v Harlequins II were to take place on the Exiles ground at Orleans Park in Twickenham whilst Wasps v St Mary’s Hospital and UCS Old Boys v Bank of England II were to be played at the Harlequins ground in Teddington. Both of these grounds would then host one of the quarter finals with the winner of each mini competition making their way to the main England stadium to take their place in the semi finals. For the losers of these fixtures it must have been disappointing not to play in the big arena but such was the luck of the draw.

As is often the case in such a tournament the way that the fixtures fell could have a marked effect on how easy it was for teams to progress. The Harlequins side was forced to do battle with Kings College Hospital , London Scottish and Blackheath as they fought their way to the final. In the bottom half of the draw St Mary’s Hospital outdid themselves on the form book, even if they had an arguably easier task facing Wasps, UCS Old Boys and Old Merchant Taylors on the way.

Whatever the relative merits of the draw both of the semi finals were not without drama. At half time Harlequins trailed Blackheath by five points. It took a concerted effort and converted tries by William Wavell Wakefield, Richard Hamilton-Wickes and John Worton to secure their place in the final. St Mary’s Hospital equally may well have been disappointed after a close if exciting tussle with Old Merchant Taylors, also having been down at half time which was enough to keep the spectators more than interested.

As the players the two finalists attempted to regain both their breath and composure there was a novel entertainment for the crowd, some of whom were involved in an impromptu five hundred a side game during the break in play. If sevens were something new then this was something that took rugby all the way back to its roots. The outcome of the game was unimportant, an exhibition that cannot be imagined taking place on the Twickenham turf today, but to their credit the one thousand players ceded the pitch and made their way back to their seats when the half hour was up and so allow the slight matter of the final to commence.

It would have been in keeping with the festive nature of the day if the final had been as nail biting as the semis, but this was not really to be the case. The Harlequins seven comprising of William Wavell Wakefield, John Gibbs, Richard Hamilton-Wickes, Vivian Davies, John Worton, JS Chick and William Browne included six capped internationals and as proceedings had progressed became increasingly attuned to the sevens style of play and proved too much for the hospital side. This said the St Mary’s side included Denis Cussen a former Ireland international and Nathan Rocyn-Jones who had been capped by Wales but they were apt to kick at the wrong time and too the wrong place gifting the Harlequins opportunities to show their skills. Gibbs fielded a poor kick and raced away to put Worton in. Wakefield almost nonchalantly beat the St Mary’s defence and walked the last few yards to the line leaving the Harlequins leading by ten points at half time. In the second period of play the multi coloured Harlequins continued to press. Hamilton-Wickes dummied to score. St Mary’s did manage to pull one score back through WG Harvey, but the Harlequins machine was now at full speed and further tries by Gibbs, Hamilton-Wickes and Davies put a very final seal on the matter as Harlequins stretched to a twenty five points to three victory and took the title in this first competition and lifting a replica of the Kinross Arber Cup.

It had been an exhilarating day for all concerned as players and spectators alike became caught up in the speed and action of the sevens game. When all was said and done it had been a great success, both for rugby itself and for the Middlesex Hospital who reaped the £1621 that had been raised by the event towards their restoration fund, hardly an inconsiderable sum for the time. There could be little doubt that not only had sevens reached London , but it was now also here to stay.



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© D A Hunter, 2010
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