A Brief History of Seven a Side Rugby
How and when did the game of Sevens start and "The Sports" become the climax of the Melrose Rugby season?
Tradition has it, for there are no authoritative documents of the period extant today, that in 1883 Melrose Football Club was casting around for ideas to help the Club's finances when the suggestion of a football tournament was put forward by the now legendary 'NED' HAIG.
Ned Haig was born in Jedburgh on 7th December, 1858, and came to Melrose as a youth. At first he was not particularly attracted to the game of Rugby but after participation in Fastern's E'en Ba he developed an interest and taste for the sport.
Haig first played for the Club in 1880 in the second team with an occasional sortie in the Firsts, the first of these being against Earlston at the Annual Hiring Fair there. One year later he was a regular member of the First team and also made appearances for the South.
When Haig's playing days came to an end he continued to take an active part in The Club and served for several seasons on the General and Match Committee. Whilst best remembered as the innovator of the Sevens as well as for his other Rugby activities he also participated in other sports among which were Cricket, Curling and Golf.
Ned Haig had a long life and died on 28th March, 1939, just shortly before the by now popular Melrose Sports at The Greenyards; the very event that he was instrumental in initiating.
In an article "An old Melrose Player's Recollections", written most probably in 1907/1908, Haig says:
'Want of money made us rack our brains as to what was to be done to keep the Club from going to the wall, and the idea struck me that a football tournament might prove attractive but as it was hopeless to think of having several games in one afternoon with fifteen players on each side, the teams were reduced to seven men.'
Haig's contribution according to that statement by himself was the idea of a football tournament. The wording suggests that the reduction to seven players per side was the outcome of discussion among some or probably all of the Club's officials of the mechanics of running such a tournament. It is not now possible to say whether a football tournament with athletic events, or athletic events with a football tournament was the original idea. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, generations of spectators and players have been grateful that the Melrose Sports were started and included a football tournament. Originally the "seven men" comprised a full back, two quarter-backs and four forwards but with the development of the passing game the forwards were reduced to three and an extra half-back played.
Initially, the programme contained foot races, drop kicks, dribbling races and place kicking. The "Football Competition", however was the main attraction and a cup was presented for it by "The Ladies of Melrose". Such events as drop-kicks already featured in the Highfield Academy sports but never had the idea of a football competition been mooted. On 28th April, 1883, the first Melrose Sports were held.
"Under the auspices of the Melrose Club sports were held in the Greenyards on Saturday. The events began at 12.30 and concluded at 7.30. The day was not very favourable being cold during the forepart and wet long before the close.
By the time this event, the chief one of the day, commenced an enormous crowd of spectators had assembled, special trains having been run from Galashiels and Hawick and about 1600 tickets had been taken at Melrose during the day. From the former place alone there were 862 persons booked of whom 509 came by special train and the other 353 by ordinary train. Among these were a number of manufacturers and Melrose itself was represented by many of the gentry of the district. The Galashiels Brass Band, in uniform, came by the special train and discoursed music at intervals, the light fantastic toe being tripped by a good few of the young people to its strains. As football has been the popular game of the season in the district, perhaps because its nature corresponds with the spirit of the hardy Borderer, the competition has been looked forward to with great interest, as most of the clubs of the district were expected to compete for the prize (a silver cup presented by the ladies of Melrose). The excitement during the game was thus great and that portion of the spectators belonging to the various townships did all it could to encourage its club or clubs. Specially was this the case on the part of the Galashiels people who leaped the barrier on several occasions at critical points of play by their clubs and mixed among the players. To their credit be it said, however, no portion of spectators however warm their feelings interfered with any of the clubs. The competition was played under rugby rules, fifteen minutes play being allowed to each heat, and seven members of each club competing. The regulations were that in the first heat should two clubs tie, they would both be allowed to play in the second; should two clubs tie in the second round of the competition, they shall play on until one scores, when that one shall be declared the winner of the heat..
(Gala Forest, a junior team, had the bye because the Kelso team did not turn up).
Melrose and Gala were left to decide the result of the final. The ground by this time was soft and slippery owing to the rain and the Gala team were pretty well knocked up after a tough contest with St. Cuthbert's. After a short interval, however, they were forced to begin again or run the risk of being disqualified. The Melrose team had had a long rest and the two clubs they had played previously were both light and they were therefore much fresher than their opponents. They played for fifteen minutes, a fast and rough game but as nothing was scored it was agreed by the Captains to play another quarter of an hour. After ten minutes ply Melrose obtained a try and left the field without either trying to their goal or finishing the game, claiming the cup; but their title to do so was challenged by Gala on the ground that the game had not been finished. The proceedings were then brought to an abrupt conclusion and the spectators left the ground amid much noise and confusion. It is said the referee decided the try in favour of Melrose but that they should have played the quarter of an hour before they were entitled to claim the cup.." - Border Advertiser, 2nd May, 1883.
John Hart, writing in the SOUTHERN JOURNAL for 1957, describes the Melrose Sevens thus:-
"For their first Sports the Melrose Seven wore white jerseys each adorned with a hand-sewn badge on the pocket. Their jerseys were presented by the Ladies of Melrose who took a great interest in the young side.. There was one referee and two umpires, one on each side of the scrum and no touch running. An umpire would raise his flag for an infringement and the referee might then blow his whistle. This made for fewer penalties. A touch down counted against the defending side."
J. Simpson, D. Sanderson, N. Haig, J. Riddell, T. Riddell, G. Mercer, and J. Tacket formed the Melrose team. J. Simpson, the full-back, had a safe pair of hands and a fair turn of speed. He linked well with his quarter backs and fully realised the basic principle of sevens - ball possession. D. Sanderson and N. Haig were outstanding quarter backs who combined with an understanding which frequently bewildered their opponents. Sanderson was not a tall man but strong and quick in his acceleration. He side-stepped and swerved most elusively. Haig was taller and never gave up until the final whistle.
Whilst the idea of the Sevens game came from Ned Haig the first participants of the first ever Sevens Tournament must also in no small way share in that historic day. Without them there would have been no tournament and their names are therefore worthy of being recorded:-
Gala: A. J. Sanderson, J. Hewat, W. Rae, W. Wear, T. Oliver, J. Waid and T. Smith.
Selkirk: T. Edgar, G. Park, J. Douglas, J. Gallacher, A. McBain, J. Hardie and A. Hogg.
St. Cuthbert's: D. Miller, J. Miller, J. Ogg, W. Miller, W. Rae, T. Amos and J. Pennycook.
Earlston: J. Wilson, W. Greig, A. Hunter, J. Burrell, W. Kerr, J. Robertson and W. Davidson.
St. Ronans: Names not recorded in any record of the Sports.
Gala Forest: W. Spiers, A. Dobson, W. Dryden, M. Innes, J. Dobson, J. Lees and (?) Donaldson.
Such then was the first seven-a-side tournament. A try by D. Sanderson in extra time brought it to an end and Melrose claimed the Ladies Cup as "the best team of seven men in any Border Football Club".
Also: The Spread of Sevens