Rugby sevens – which is older, less subject to media coverage, faster paced, more spectacular – has begun to compete seriously with its 15-a-side version since joining the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. Here we provide a brief comparison between these two variants of the sport.
Presentation of rugby sevens
As its name suggests, it is played with teams of seven players on the same field as rugby fifteens. There is consequently much more space for the players to exploit, and greater opportunities for them to score tries. The players run a lot and have to constantly reposition themselves.
There are also 3-player scrums, which precludes jostling for domination; it’s just a way to restart the game.
When a try is scored, it is transformed using a drop kick, a feature that further accelerates the pace of the match.
Matches are played in two halves of 7 or 10 minutes, with a very short interlude.
Historical advantage of rugby fifteens
As the legend goes, when rugby was born in the town of Rugby in 1823, 15-a-side rugby commanded an important place in the history of the sport. As a result, it has one of the sport’s oldest trophies with the Calcutta Cup. Since 1871, the Calcutta Cup has been awarded to the winner of the match between Scotland and England. Not forgetting the eternal Five (now Six) Nations Tournament that focuses attention of the rugby fifteens version of the game.
But seven-a-side rugby is not as recent a discipline as one might think, invented as it was by two Scottish butchers in the town of Melrose in 1883. However, the IRB World Sevens Series, the Rugby Sevens World Cup tournament, only saw the light of day in 1999.
In terms of entertainment value: a draw
It's a fairly subjective topic but many people at the Rio Olympics in 2016 found rugby sevens extremely spectacular. And the Fijians’ performance made the matches even more breathtaking. Some rugby fifteens fans are also beginning to switch their affections to rugby sevens, which they find closer to the origins of the sport, being initially a game where players tried to avoid physical contact.
At the same time, 15-a-side rugby is moving increasingly towards a full-contact game that some people may well find boring. But others feel that rugby sevens lacks this notion of confrontation, the very essence of rugby and that the scrum, for example, represents an essential phase of the game that doesn’t really exist in the seven-a-side variant.
Financially speaking: advantage to rugby fifteens
Fifteen-a-side rugby, with its long history and the weight of the Federations and professional clubs, enjoys access to incomparably greater sources of funding. As a result, rugby sevens finds it difficult to attract outstanding players. The French 7-a-side team has to draw its players from a second-tier pool… and as soon as a player shines in rugby sevens, he is then frequently snapped up by a rugby fifteens team.
In terms of sheer pace: advantage to rugby sevens
Rugby sevens is unquestionably outstanding as far as its intensity and pace are concerned. There are no pauses in the game; tries and attacking moves follow one another non-stop. This is very different in rugby fifteens, marked by numerous stoppages that may create a sense of fatigue among spectators.
In terms of ‘celebrities’: advantage to rugby fifteens
All the great rugby players today play fifteen-a-side rugby. Some of them initially made a name for themselves in rugby sevens, such as Jonah Lomu or Virimi Vakatawa, who now plays for Racing 92 and the French national team. After seven-a-side rugby, they often move on to rugby fifteens, which enjoys greater media coverage and higher budgets. This is a problem for rugby sevens if it wants to continue to grow and retain its talented players.
At the international level: advantage to rugby sevens
The desire to extend rugby’s influence beyond its original cradle is one of the major reasons why the IRB (IRB World Sevens Series) developed rugby sevens. It is well known that the Rugby Fifteens World Cup is usually won by one of the same five or six countries. This is one of the weaknesses of fifteen-a-side rugby. Rugby sevens, on the other hand, because it doesn’t require much infrastructure, is played all over the world.
As a result, rugby sevens teams and competitions can be found on every continent, especially in Africa, where it is very popular. But above all, and unlike rugby fifteens, small nations without resources can be very successful. For example, Fiji became Olympic champions at the Rio Olympics and Kenya's team is one of the finest in the world.
In terms of media coverage: advantage to rugby fifteens
Thanks to its World Cup, domestic championships such as the TOP 14, the European Cup and the 6 Nations Tournament, fifteen-a-side rugby boasts a huge media audience.
Rugby sevens didn’t organize its first World Cup until 1993. However, the IRB's Rugby Sevens tournament circuit is gaining momentum around the world. Unlike rugby fifteens, IRB World Sevens Series matches are attracting television audiences in Africa and Asia. Its inclusion in the Olympic Games has also considerably increased the visibility of the sport.
In terms of attractiveness: advantage to rugby sevens
Seven-a-side rugby has the advantage of modernity: the modernity of the game, of its dynamism but also of its competitions. Rugby sevens matches are played in stadiums with an extraordinary atmosphere, such as in Hong Kong where everyone comes to the stadium in disguise. The matches follow in quick succession; the game has rhythm and pace, just like the sound systems in the stadiums!
It's also a new image of rugby that is starting to attract a different audience. And the Olympic Games will provide enormous leverage to help ensure the continued development of rugby sevens… and new nations are turning to rugby sevens to compete in the Olympic Games.
So... which version wins: sevens or fifteens?