Played out over the sprawling fields of suburban south-west London, the Rosslyn Park National Schools Sevens is drenched in stately prestige. First contested between 16 founder members in a much humbler guise back in 1939, the competition has now evolved into a far more illustrious entity.
This year, the tournament has been greeted by a week of unseasonably glorious March sunshine, with around 7,000 girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 19 battling for five separate trophies. The view across the pitches on Wimbledon Common on any given day of the hectic playing schedule is truly awe-inspiring and highlights the immense scale that Rosslyn Park has now reached, unrivalled across world rugby.
Naturally, some of the sport’s brightest British stars have passed through over time. England captains Will Carling, Lawrence Dallaglio and Phil de Glanville are just three stellar names in a catalogue of former internationals to have taken part in their formative years.
Gareth Edwards, he of Wales, British Lions and Barbarians folklore, was inevitably more successful than most, tasting victory in 1966 with Millfield, itself a conveyor belt of excellence. Speaking on Thursday shortly before meeting the current crop of Millfordians – who were knocked out at the semi-final stage of the Open competition – the former scrum-half was happy to bask in happy nostalgia.
“I can remember the thrill of playing here because of how prestigious the whole thing was,” explained Edwards, now an ambassador for HSBC, who have been the tournament’s chief sponsors for the past two years. “It was over two days and there were some exceptionally good teams from all over the United Kingdom playing in it. Llanelli Grammar School had won it on three occasions and were accused of being professional!
“One year, I actually missed a Welsh Schools international to be there and the publicity we got for Millfield after winning it was massive – it was all over the press. Rosslyn Park will always be a very special place for me and I will never forget the experience.”
After paying tribute to the organisers, whose handle on a logistical labyrinth of match timetables and kick-off times remains steadfast year after year, Edwards conceded that the event has almost unrecognisably outgrown its early days. Indeed, such an expansion is indicative of the development that the seven-a-side game has enjoyed over the past two decades.
Since the foundation of the globetrotting HSBC World Series in 1999, sevens has been creeping from the shadow of fifteens. The chaotic party atmosphere of last weekend’s Hong Kong leg – the final of which was won by Fiji after a typically barnstorming defeat of season front-runners New Zealand – provided comfortably comprehensive evidence that the shorter format can grasp the limelight all by itself these days.
A glance at the England set-up, led by the astute Ben Ryan, is enough to map such advancement. An elite squad is punctuated by specialists – such as Bristolian speed merchant Dan Norton – who are centrally contracted to the RFU, rather than to a club. No longer, as its induction into the roster of sports for Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic Games, is sevens a recreational afterthought.
“Sevens always will be something of a feeder line into the fifteens but it has become more than just that in recent years,” continued Edwards, pondering the rapidly-diminishing practice of blooding potential internationals on the World Series circuit.
“It has established itself as a game within the game because the speed and intensity of sevens makes it into a full-time job. I remember playing in the inaugural Sevens World Cup at Murrayfield as part of the Scottish Rugby Union’s centenary celebrations. Back then, I don’t think anyone saw a future for it.
“A few years ago, I saw India play China in Singapore. I never thought I’d see teams like that showing tremendous skills and a refreshing understanding of the game. Look at how Kenya, Russia and Portugal have improved too – they are coming on leaps and bounds.
“The Olympic Games will change the course of sevens forever, I am sure. When that stratosphere is stretched, it can be a truly worldwide game.”
Edwards’ evident excitement is a mark of both the fondness he feels towards Rosslyn Park and the progress that his beloved sport of sevens is thriving on. As this celebrated schools tournament has shown, the sky is the limit for rugby’s young, ambitious sibling.
Gareth Edwards was a guest of HSBC at the world's largest schools sevens tournament, The Rosslyn Park HSBC National Schools Sevens. For more information, please visit www.rpns7.co.uk