Tom Mitchell - GB Sevens captain

sevens heaven

Words: Hugh Godwin
photography: Detlef schneider

It’s brutal, quick, relentless and unlike rugby as you know it: Rugby Sevens, a new addition to the rio games roster, is gathering global pace. but Far from being ‘rugby lite’, this, says England Sevens captain Tom Mitchell, is a very different beast. It is quite possibly the world’s toughest sport – and may prove to be your new Olympic favourite

It’s doubtful the organisers of this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro need any help with branding the greatest multi-sport show on earth, but if they are looking for a strapline to sum up rugby sevens, it could easily be: “Catch me if you can.” Speed, supreme fitness and a captivating combination of teamwork and individual brilliance are the base elements of a game that is making its debut appearance in the quadrennial jamboree in Brazil next month.

In this article:

  • All about rugby seven: the concept, history, and rules
  • Rugby seven at the Olympics in Rio 2016
  • Tom Mitchell’s thoughts on training, skills, simplicity and space in rugby sevens
  • Rugby seven teams and players from South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji and Great Britain 
Rugby Sevens - England's captain Tom Mitchell

A game of two halves: two seven-minute halves may not seem long, but there is constant movement

Seven-a-side rugby – to give the sport its full title taken from the number of players on each team – is the pared-down, souped-up version of the 15-a-side game.

Maybe the mention of rugby brings certain images to your mind, like a nebulous mass of muddy bodies heaving and shoving in a scrum where the oval ball disappears from sight for minutes on end and the spectator sits twiddling his thumbs, waiting for something – anything – to happen?

That’s not sevens. This game is quick and relentless; it’s been called the “toughest sport in the world” due to the mix of muscular strength, delicate ball skills and sustained sprinting the players need to survive and prosper.

Find out about England sevens star Tom Mitchell and his journey from schoolboy rugby to the international stage

© World Rugby // YouTube

“A different type of energy system,” is how Tom Mitchell, the captain of the GB Sevens team, who is hoping to be part of the Team GB squad heading to Rio, describes the physical demands of sevens, while Neil Powell, head coach of the South Africa team, sums up the tactical challenge as “human chess”. The South Africans are nicknamed the ‘Blitzboks’ – a pretty good clue as to the non-stop onslaught you will witness on a sevens field.

Rugby sevens star and captain of the English team: Tom Mitchell

Twelve teams will compete in Rio and Mitchell is confident of the potential of Team GB

The essential aim in sevens is the same as in the standard, 15-a-side game – namely, scoring more points than the opposition with tries (grounding the ball on or beyond the opponents’ goal line for five points), conversions (drop-kicking the ball through the posts for an extra two points after a try has been scored) and penalty goals and dropped goals worth three points each. 

The length of a match – two halves of seven minutes each, compared with two x 40 minutes in 15-a-side – may not sound a lot, but from the referee’s first whistle to the last there is constant movement including bouts of flat-out running, rapid changes of direction and highly physical tussles when a tackle for the ball is made.

The set-piece elements of 15-a-side, such as scrums, line-outs, rucks and mauls, are all present, but with fewer players and much less fuss. The size of the field is exactly the same (100m x 70m, plus the in-goal areas), yet with 14 players involved instead of 30, it is immediately obvious there’s more space to work in, which in turn places a microscopic emphasis on the players’ core skills of passing (which must always be backwards), making or evading tackles and keeping the ball moving.


“Pretty much every basic skill you need to play rugby is put under the microscope,” says Tom Mitchell.

“You might think you have a good pass, but you’ll soon find out when you’re running at full speed and trying to throw a pass to someone who’s 20m away.

“When you’re defending, the pressure’s on your positioning, to cover maybe 15m either side of you. 

“If you get things wrong in those areas, you either miss out on scoring a try or you concede a try. You are exposed in a big way on a sevens field. It’s beautifully brutal.”

“If you’re not at a certain level of speed you’ll just get picked off, you’ll be exposed,” says Mitchell. “The level of athlete that’s competing in sevens is different to what we were seeing even three or four years ago. Some of our training would be recognisable to a sprinter, and some of it would be familiar to a weightlifter.“

“If you’re not at a certain level of speed you’ll just get picked off, you’ll be exposed”

“Our conditioning sessions include high-speed movement with lots of jumps and power cleans, together with a running load that will build stamina into the legs. That’s what we need to play multiple matches of sevens over two or three days.”

Tom Mitchell's speed training

Building speed: “Conditioning sessions include running to build stamina into the legs,” says Mitchell 

Sevens is far from a new concept. It was invented by the good folk of Melrose Rugby Club, in the Scottish Borders, in the late 19th century, when they needed to raise funds and didn’t have the time or inclination to arrange a drawn-out tournament of standard rugby.

Tom Mitchell - GB Rugby Sevens

Tom Mitchell was nominated as Sevens World Player of the Year for 2013-14

For many decades, the game was a bit of knockabout fun at either end of a rugby club’s gruelling winter season, when the pot-bellied behemoths put their feet up and the quicker, fitter lads could show off their skills in the sun. The step change occurred in the 1980s, when rugby union’s world governing body began lobbying to have their sport readmitted to the Olympics, to boost its popularity and profile. Readmitted? Yes, rugby has been in the Games before, in its 15-a-side guise. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, generally regarded as the father of the modern Olympics, was a rugby fan and referee, and he put together a tournament at four Olympics between 1900 and 1924. 

Trouble was, the gold-medal match in Paris in 1924 ended in a pitch invasion by angry French spectators after the USA’s win over the home team. With the stink caused by the Paris riot, plus a lack of countries worldwide able to compete, rugby was unceremoniously elbowed out of the schedule – leaving the USA, somewhat wackily as they have never been a pre-eminent rugby force, as the reigning Olympic champions for the next 92 years. 

Once the powers-that-be decreed that sevens would be the format for Olympics inclusion, a world series was established in 1999, and it has transformed the sevens scene. 


“The simplicity of sevens sets it apart and makes it a more attractive spectacle, and more accessible if you are new to the game. You do not need a lot of understanding to really engage with it and find it exciting,” says Mitchell.

“The set-piece is much less of a factor than it is in 15-a-side – I was never going to play in the front row of the scrum, so it’s not something I miss. 

“You just have seven guys on seven guys, and when you are in possession of the ball, it all comes down to how you manipulate the opposition’s defenders.”

The 10-tournament series takes place over six months each year, from London to Las Vegas via Dubai and Hong Kong, and the 15-a-side superpower New Zealand have won it a record 12 times.

But the beauty has been seeing the likes of Kenya, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Brazil thriving in a format that is much more accessible than the traditional, labour-intensive, 15-man game.

The Kenyans caused surprise and delight when they won the Singapore leg of the series in April 2016.

The USA’s full-time sevens programme has nurtured headline-grabbing talent such as the flying wings Carlin Isles and Perry Baker. In the run-up to Rio, they recruited the sevens expert Mike Friday from England as coach.

Tom Mitchell - England's Rugby Sevens Captain goes for gold in Rio 2016

Sevens was invented in the 19th century, but today’s players are in a different league 

Twelve national teams will compete in the Rio tournament over three days at the Deodoro Stadium, in three groups of four leading to the final, gold-medal match.

The composite Great Britain team in Rio will comprise players from the normally separate rugby countries of England, Scotland and Wales.

The favourites must be Fiji, small in size as a country, but giants of sevens. With another Englishman, Ben Ryan, as coach, the Pacific islanders completed a fantastic back-to-back triumph in the world series in May 2016, finishing ahead of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina – all of whom will fancy their chances in Rio.

The much-loved “magician” Waisale Serevi was the Fijians’ totem for many years; now Ryan believes Osea Kolinisau belongs in the same exalted bracket. “He’s our captain and the glue in our team,” says Ryan. 

South Africa’s strength is in defence. “If you look at the stats, we conceded the fewest tries of any team over the 10 tournaments [in the world series],” says coach Powell. “We work hard on our defensive system, really making teams work for their tries against us. In Rio, it will be all about the team and the individuals within the teams who hit form.”

You don’t need to drown in a sea of jargon to quickly pick up sevens’ basic tactics. Watch out for the “sweeper” who lurks behind his six teammates when the opposition have the ball, with a brief to spot where the danger is developing. 

The three forwards (two props and a hooker) in the team are the bigger men – the masters of the scramble for possession in and immediately after a tackle (listen out for commentators analysing the “breakdown”).

“In Rio, it will be all about the team and the individuals within the teams who hit form.”
South Africa's coach Neil Powell

The four backs include a scrum-half and fly-half as the main playmakers, and a centre and wing who are the best strike runners.

The “human chess” analogy describes the constant probing for a hole in the opponents’ defences, while being conscious of the risk of your own line being breached if a gap is left unguarded, or the ball is surrendered too easily.

Take a look at what rugby seven is and learn the game

© World Rugby // YouTube

All the time, you are looking to move your various men into their optimal positions, and the greatest thrill for the 15,000-strong crowd who will watch the Rio rugby sevens will be when a flyer receives the ball on the end of a quality move of several passes, pins his ears back and goes for a try – catch him if you can!

South Africa’s Seabelo Senatla has one of the best sets of “wheels” on the planet, and although Powell gave every chance to the superstar 15-a-side wing Bryan Habana to make the plane to Brazil, sevens has become such a specialism that few players sustain careers in both formats.

An exception to the rule in Rio will be New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, but here is a man who is a champion in both 15-a-side and sevens rugby union, 13-a-side rugby league and, oh, heavyweight boxing, too.


“I enjoy the space with 14 players on the field instead of 30 – it makes for a raw, exciting and more open game,” says Mitchell. 

“The space could be anywhere on the field, and it’s just about playing with your head up, identifying where the space is, and employing whatever’s in your armoury to attack it. That’s the freedom you go out with, every game. Sevens has been talked about alongside Aussie Rules football as the toughest sport in the world. I’d liken it to decathlon for the repeat efforts you need to make over a tournament lasting two or three days.”

“This year’s sevens world series has been the most competitive ever, with the highest number of different winners,” says Mitchell.

“So it makes a winner in Rio very difficult to predict. But I’m confident of the potential for GB. It’s the first time that we’ve had three nations come together to combine the quality that we’ve got across England, Scotland and Wales. It’s going to be very exciting to see what happens.”


Tom’s Key Stats:

  • Date of Birth: July 22, 1989
  • Born: Cuckfield, West Sussex, England
  • Team: England Sevens, GB sevens, ex-Oxford University
  • Roles on the field: Fly-half, playmaker, sweeper, captain
  • Greatest successes in sevens: Captaining England to winning the Tokyo tournament, 2015; Nominated as Sevens World Player of the Year for 2013-14
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08 2016 The Red Bulletin

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