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7 Things We Learned About Rugby Sevens

By Peggy Shinn | July 23, 2018, 7:20 p.m. (ET)

Members of the U.S. men’s rugby team talk in a huddle at the Rugby World Cup Sevens on July 22, 2018 in San Francisco.


SAN FRANCISCO — The Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 concluded Sunday evening. Held over three sunny days in San Francisco, it wasn’t just successful for New Zealand, which ran away with the men’s and women’s World Cup titles for the second consecutive time.

More than 100,000 people came to AT&T Park to watch the tournament. Like the FIFA World Cup, the Rugby World Cup Sevens is held every four years, and this was the first time that the U.S. has hosted the tournament.

The USA Eagles Sevens put on a show, finishing sixth in the men’s competition — a best ever — and fourth for the women. But their overall placing was almost secondary to the USA Eagles’ primary goal: to generate interest for the sport in the U.S. and set an example for future generations coming up through the ranks.

“We’re just trying to push the game forward in this country,” said Matai Leuta, playing in his first World Cup. 

As American sports fans were introduced to rugby sevens through this tournament, here are a few things we learned.

1) Speed Rules In Rugby Sevens

Rugby sevens is played on a pitch measuring 100 meters long and 70 meters wide. It’s the same size field on which standard rugby (called 15s or XVs or rugby union) is played, except with eight fewer players. 

It’s a lot of real estate for seven players to cover.

USA Eagles’ top scorer Naya Tapper had no idea how hard rugby sevens would be when she first started. She came to sevens from rugby 15s, where games last 80 minutes. In rugby sevens, games consist of seven-minute halves with one minute in between (and 10-minute halves in the championship final).

“When someone tells you that you only have to play 14 minutes, you’re like, oh, this is going to be a piece of cake,” Tapper said. “And it’s not. It’s way faster.”

It’s like sprinting for 14 minutes — plus getting up from the ground, passing and catching balls, and tackling opponents, she pointed out.

Fast sprinters tend to be the biggest point scorers in rugby sevens. Tapper was a sprinter in high school before discovering rugby at the University of North Carolina.

Carlin Isles and Perry Baker are two of the highest scoring men in rugby sevens. Isles considered competing at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field before discovering rugby. His personal best in the 100-meter is 10.13 seconds. This time would have qualified him for the semifinals at the Olympic Games London 2012.

2) The Clock Never Stops 

In rugby sevens, the clock starts counting down during each half, and it never stops — unless there’s an injury or infraction to sort out. When a player is tackled, he/she is supposed to relinquish the ball so that play continues. 

So why does play continue after the clock has counted down to zero?

It’s called the final play, and games do not officially end until a team scores or the ball goes out of bounds after the buzzer. Even if there’s a turnover, play continues. Final plays can stretch as long as two minutes — and give a trailing team hope for a win.

3) What A Try Is

In rugby, a goal is called a try. And no one could tell us why. 

So we dug deeper.

In early versions of rugby, teams only scored by getting the ball close enough to their end zone that they could kick the ball through the goal posts. By most accounts, it was difficult to score. As the game developed, players began running the ball across the end zone line. This move did not garner any points. It simply gave the team the right to “try” on goal. A team would only score if the ball was successfully kicked through the goal posts.

In today’s game, teams are awarded five points for a “try” (a ball run into the end zone) and two points for a post-try conversion.

But a try really should be called a touchdown. Players don’t score the five points unless they touch the ball to the ground in the end zone. 

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4) From Where To Kick The Two-Point Conversion

After a team scores five points for a try, it earns the chance to kick for two more points. The kicked ball must go through the goal posts to receive the two extra points, called the conversion.

So why do some players kick the conversion from directly in front of the goal, while others kick from the sides?

A player kicks a conversion on a line perpendicular to the spot where the touchdown occurred, which is why players try to run toward the center of the end zone before touching the ball to the ground. The more oblique the angle, the more difficult it is to score a conversion.

Unlike American football, where the extra point must be kicked 33 yards from the goal posts, a rugby player can kick a conversion at any distance from the end zone.

5) You Don’t Want To Go To The “Sin Bin”

What’s not to like about a sport that calls its penalty box the “sin bin”? A player receiving a yellow card in rugby sevens spends two minutes out of the game and in this aptly named spot on the sidelines.

What types of infractions can put a player in the “sin bin”?

Perry Baker gave an example in the men’s 5th/6th-place final at the World Cup. He tried to intercept a pass but missed. Instead, his hand advanced the ball forward. This penalty sent him to the “sin bin” for two minutes.

Sitting there, Baker felt sorry for putting his team in the situation where they were a man down on Argentina. 

“I wanted to get back in,” he said, “so I could make it up to those guys.”

For more examples of “sin bin” infractions, keep reading.

6) Rugby Is Friendlier Than It Looks

From the outside, rugby looks brutal. Players bring one another down with startling speed and can end up in heaps on the pitch.

The physicality of rugby sevens surprised women’s team veteran Ryan Carlyle when she first started playing — and the mental awareness required to play under fatigue.

But the sport is governed by a long list of rules that aim to prevent foul play. For example, only the player who has the ball may be tackled, and a tackler must bring down a player by grasping him/her below the shoulders. Pushing and straight-arming an opponent is not allowed. Opponents may not tackle anyone whose feet have left the ground (which is why players often leap or are lifted by teammates to catch the ball — plus, this move gives them added height on their opponents). And violent play (eye gouging, elbowing, etc.) is forbidden.

Dangerous play can lead a player directly to the “sin bin.”

Once games end, rugby players are remarkably collegial with one another. 

“There’s no hostility between the teams,” pointed out Team USA’s Stephen Tomasin, who played in his first World Cup in San Francisco.

7) It’s A Very Costumed Crowd

Don’t put that hot dog costume in the yard sale just yet. For fans, rugby sevens is like Halloween gone wild.

At San Francisco’s AT&T Park, spectators with red, white and blue face-paint dotted the crowd, along with many dressed as Uncle Sam. Canadians unabashedly wore flannel suits, shirts and what looked like pajamas; others sported moose hats. And one group of six Brits in front-row seats was dressed in royal purple capes and inflatable gold crowns. God save the Queen. 

Then there were the blue-wigged Fijians filling the stands. Fiji has one of the top men’s rugby sevens teams in the world; they won the sport’s Olympic debut in 2016 and are two-time World Cup champions.

When Fiji took to the pitch, it seemed as if the entire population of the archipelago had traveled to San Francisco.

But it’s a happy party, with no jingoistic jostling in the stands. 

“The fans are amazing,” said Tomasin. “You’re not going to get a lot of hostility in the stands between fans of different countries. They’re all here to see the beautiful game that we play.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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