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The Structural Flaws of the National Schools' Rugby Sevens

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There has never been more Sevens Rugby played in schools than there is in the current era.  Despite last season’s insensitive application of confusing RFU Regulations, there are more competitions, at more age groups, than ever before.  At a time when the 15-a-side school game is contracting, Sevens is going in the opposite direction.  It has the potential to have a big future.  There is even reason to be hopeful that the structured youth season might better accommodate the shorter game in 2021.

This is reflected in the National Schools’ Competition, which is the biggest event of its type in the world.  10,000 players compete annually on vast swathes of pitches at Wimbledon, as the competition has long ago out-grown its spiritual home at the Rosslyn Park club.  It is an extraordinary logistical achievement that has survived regular interruptions from weather and unforeseeable events such as war and foot and mouth: it will undoubtably still be occurring when coronavirus is ancient history.

Over recent years, the number of competitions has increased.  Additional age groups for boys, plus further girls’ events have seen growth to a size that couldn’t have been imagined when the Public Schools Sevens began in 1939, as a knockout of 16 teams. 

Approximately one third of the 866 teams compete in the senior (U-18) boys’ competitions.  These are the oldest events, and enjoy the highest profile. There have long been two separate contests in these age groups.  For many years, the distinction was between one term schools (who played in the Festival) and two term schools who entered the Open.  Until 1989, it was possible for a school to enter both in the same year: this rule which only changed when Ampleforth College won the two trophies in four consecutive days of unprecedented triumph. 

Changing attitudes to two terms of Rugby, together with a much more focused approach by the leading Festival teams, made the original distinction between the competitions obsolete.  Attempts to replace this to create a two tier event – the Open and the Vase - have been messy, unsuccessful and have led to considerable controversy.  The result is that, of the 268 teams entering the two senior competitions, only 60 (less than 30%) are now choosing the Open.  The flagship competition, the high point at the culmination of a week of rugby, is now the smallest boys’ event.  This cannot be a satisfactory state of affairs.  Some of the biggest, and longest established, rugby-playing schools compete regularly in the Vase, despite the competition rubric which states that, “The Vase is for emerging sides looking to develop in the game”.  Some Vase entrants have been playing the game for over 100 years, and regularly field more than 20 Saturday teams: their scope for further development is limited.

Other schools’ Rugby events do not suffer from similarly uneven entry.  The 15-a-side equivalent, the National Schools’ Rugby Competitions, has 160 teams in its top tier competitions, compared with 256 in its second tier Vase.

So, why does this occur?  The reason, in part, is the presence in the Open of massive sixth form and tertiary colleges, many linked with the professional academies of English Premiership, and Welsh Pro14, clubs.  These are patently not schools, and are accommodated in an event whose title implies that requirement.  Bizarrely, the girls’ senior competitions separate the AASE colleges from the schools: the boys put them all together. This is a baffling inconsistency.  The requirements for entering the National Schools’ Sevens should be twofold: to be a school, and to have seven players.  Accommodating the colleges in their own, parallel, contest would be an uncontroversial addition.  This would allow simpler distinction of criteria for entry to the Open, based on the size of each school’s Rugby programme.  Ambitious schools would not be prevented from entering the Open (as the name suggests), but large and well-established ones would be disqualified from the Vase. 

There needs to be more carrot, and less stick.  Rather than forcing schools to enter a competition they don’t feel is right for them, (as the regulations suggest at present), the structure needs adjustment to ensure that the established Rugby schools feel that the Open is the right place for them.  Its 15-a-side equivalent has achieved this.

It is important for the future integrity of the competition that the Open remains the climax of the week’s Rugby.  It should be a large, and prestigious, event, featuring the best known schools in the country.  The ultimate ambition.  Significant change will be required to achieve this.