Seven players, 14 minutes, and mere millimeters between victory and defeat. Summer is here, and Rugby Sevens has begun. The little brother of rugby that grew three inches over the winter. The speed, simplicity, and ease of play have led to a sudden rise in the popularity of rugby 7s. That popularity has crowned Sevens as one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. with tournament play being where many athletes start their seasonal rugby commitments.
What makes Rugby 7s different from 15s?
The most notable difference between rugby 7s and 15s is the number of players on the field. You can probably guess how many players take the field in each version of the game. Fewer players has the simultaneous effect of making the 7s rugby field feel much larger than its 15s counterpart.
As far as the culture of rugby, the games are closely intertwined, yet the structure of a 7s competition is vastly different from 15s. Instead of having a single, season-long competition, the 7s season is broken into multiple weekend-long tournaments. Between four and six games are played in a day, with up to eight taking place during a weekend Rugby Sevens tournament.
Constant starting and stopping, the need for speed and agility coupled with solid ball handling become the tools many players reach for when it's game time. Take a kickoff, hit a ruck, defend an attack, repeat. Breaks come few and far between with cool down / warm up time between games often shorter than the time between halves. The fast paced round robin atmosphere of a rugby 7s tournament can quickly weed out those who haven’t prepared themselves with proper training and nutrition.
Law differences in Rugby 7s
What is the "legal" difference between rugby 7s and 15s you ask? The standard laws of rugby (rules) are used - with a few small variations, including:
Law 3. Number of players and substitution - in rugby 7s, there are only 7 players on the field from each team at any given time. (Unless of course you're the All Blacks, who are apparently allowed to play with 8 blokes randomly.) For everyone else, though, its 7-a-side rugby. Each team is allowed to have 5 reserves but may only use three of those reserves during the game. More on this from USA Rugby.
Law 5. Time (Game time, half time and extra time). A game of rugby 7s is constructed of two 7-minute halves. That makes it a 14-minute game. The only exception to this is during the final round of tournament play where halves are extended to 10 minutes. It's not uncommon for a half of 7s to last well past the 7 or 10-minute mark. Play continues in rugby until there is a stoppage.
Law 6. Match Officials. There are a couple of extra duties that the central referee must perform. But the main difference is the addition of "in-goal" referees who assist with adjudication on Tries. This is designed to keep tournaments running on time. It avoids the needs for instant replay and a fourth official.
Positional differences in Rugby 7s
What are the positions in rugby sevens? How do these differ from 15s rugby?
Because Rugby 7s demands greater speed and agility as well as more refined skills, it's a game more for backs than for forwards. There are (unfortunately) very few front-rowers who can easily transition from playing 15s to playing 7s rugby. In general, rugby 7s players are smaller, faster, agiler and more skilled than their 15s rugby counterparts. This makes the sport much faster, and some would say (though I wouldn't) more entertaining to watch. It's certainly more explosive and high-energy.
Props in Rugby 7s are typically the largest players on the field. They're responsible for winning set-piece (restart, scrum, and lineout) ball. Transitioning to prop in rugby 7s is usually easiest for players who are Flankers, Number 8s or Larger Centers in the 15s game. For more on how to play prop in 7s, go here.
Hooker is Rugby 7s are also on the larger side. They're skilled players who are able to cover a lot of ground and pass well from the base of the Ruck or tackle situation. Transitioning to hooker in rugby 7s will be easiest for a Flanker or perhaps a larger Fullback in 15s. For more on playing Hooker in 7s, go here.
A rugby 7s Scrum-Half is one of the most skillful players on a 7s team. They often take kickoffs and defend as the sweeper. Transitioning to scrum-half in 7s is easiest for scrum-halves, fly-halves and skillful wingers in the 15s game. For more on playing scrum-half in 7s, checkout this article by Dallen Stanford.
If you have thoughts of playing Fly-half in Rugby 7s, you'll need to be an exceptionally skillful player. Passing off both hands is a must. A varied kicking game is highly preferable. You'll also need to be super-quick off the mark. Players who transition most easily to playing fly-half in rugby 7s will mostly be fly-halves or scrum-halves in 15s rugby. More on playing fly-half here.
Want to play Center in 7s rugby? You'll need to be fast, skilled and an excellent defender. Wingers can often cover up for the defensive lapses by being fast. But Centers need to cover multiple attackers and slide from one to another with ease. This makes it one of the most difficult rugby 7s positions. Usually reserved for Centers and Fullbacks in 15s rugby who have experience covering multiple attackers moving at pace through the line.
Rugby 7s Wingers are the fastest guys/girls on the field. They're able to hit top speed in an instant and ideally, they'll have a filthy step off either foot even when they're in top gear. Centers, Wingers, and Fullbacks in the 15s game will find it easiest to transition to being a Rugby 7s Winger. More on playing wing here.
Rugby 7s Skills and Tactics
Understanding of the differences between 15-a-side rugby and Rugby Sevens is necessary to understanding what it takes to get into the game. Newcomers and players of 15-a-side rugby have to prepare themselves mentally and physically for the transition between the two primary variations of rugby. Sevens requires a small group of players that understand the basics and have a love for the sport. The fundamentals of the game haven’t changed with all players required to have strong passing, catching and running skills.
In rugby sevens, those skills are put to the test with players having to pass further, run faster and catch more often. The reduction in the number of players on each side means the on-field outputs are effectively doubled in Sevens. Players need to be able to pass twice as far, cover twice the ground on defense and move twice as quickly than in the 15s game.
Rugby Sevens is about possession with momentum acting as a catalyst to scoring. There is less scrummaging and very little kicking for territory involved in the 7s version of rugby. But every player in every position needs to be able to clean out a ruck, pass off both hands and sidestep in mid-field.
In the 15s game, the defensive line can be made up by as many as 14 players. In 7s however, the same field will be covered by as few as 3. These larger gaps in defensive lines stress the importance of open field tackling. Miss a tackle in 15s rugby and you’ll most likely have support from a teammate, miss a tackle in Sevens and there's a good chance it's Try time.
Energy Systems in Rugby 7s
According to Jules McCoy, former USA Rugby Sevens coach, and founder of American Rugby Pro Training Center (ARPTC), “there are two states of being in sevens running and sprinting”. For a player that has been playing 15s all fall, the sevens game can come as a great shock if not prepared. “The 15s player will have to train all three energy systems. ATP, Glycolytic, and Oxidative to take full advantage of the game” said, McCoy. Some may know these energy systems as the immediate, short-term, and long-term.
The immediate energy system in 7s
The immediate energy system is fueled by adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and phosphocreatine (PC). It's understood as a unit of currency for intracellular energy transfer. As the name suggest, this energy system is immediate and functions without oxygen allowing for up to 12 seconds of maximum effort. As McCoy rightly assessed, Rugby 7s players will use this energy system when they're accelerating and in top-gear. For the first few seconds, the body is reliant on ATP, then PC takes over to cushion the decline in ATP.
In Rugby 7s, the immediate energy system is what allows Carlin Isles to race past clutching defenders. But it doesn't last very long. And it can't repeatedly be used without diminishing returns. Since rugby 7s games are 14-20 minutes long, an energy system that only lasts for 12 seconds can't be relied upon on its own.
The short-term energy system in 7s
The short term or glycolytic / lactate system is fueled by glucose and a family of triglycerides. Before the immediate system has burned through PC and ATP, your body starts looking for a secondary energy source. This comes in the form of glucose from dietary carbohydrate. Oxygen is not critical for the short-term energy system to fuel glycolysis.
After 12 seconds of sprinting, maximum power declines as the intensity of the activity remains the same. If you try to maintain your output on the 7s field beyond 12 seconds, the result will be a massive increase in lactic acid production and muscle fatigue as you approach 30 seconds of effort. Go beyond 50 seconds and there is another distinct drop in power output.
What does this mean? Basically that you're slowing down. If you need to perform 14 minutes of effort in a game of Rugby 7s, you can't do it all at a sprint, or you'll last about a minute.
The long-term energy system in 7s
The long term or oxidative energy system is fueled by an oxidative process of macronutrients, carbohydrates, fats, and protein. The long-term energy system is what's keeping you going in rugby 7s when there's a break in play like a Scrum, Lineout, Try, or Restart. We use this energy system to help deal with the stress placed on our bodies by the other two energy systems.
While the efficacy of the long-term energy system can be improved by as much as 50%, the immediate and short-term energy systems can only be increased by about 20%. But that 20% really matters and needs to be trained for.
Nutrition for Rugby Sevens
The foundation of any training program is providing your body with the nutrition it needs. Supplementing your training program, with the right nutrients, in the right amounts, and at the right times is just as important as conditioning and lifting correctly. The high-intensity play of a sevens match can deplete nutrients and energy reserves quickly regardless of a player's position. McCoy explains the importance of nutrition, “Because of the high energy demands, timing and frequency in refueling are key, as well as content,’ she said. “A higher percentage of complex carbohydrates are required, paired with adequate protein sources per [pound of body] weight is necessary."
Mix matching the various sources of nutrition will provide an athlete with a broad spectrum of what their body needs while making the nutrition part of training actually enjoyable. Many run into boring or less than tasty food that makes it hard to eat right. Some well-known home remedies recommended by McCoy include peanut butter crackers, beef jerky, tuna packages and well balanced low sugar protein bars. “Access to protein sources and complex carbs throughout the day will help the athlete stay fueled,' Said McCoy. “A post-match smoothie with fruit or beet crystals plus whey protein is important, as the body best utilizes the resources within the first 20 minutes of exercise.”
Quick notes on strength training during 7s season
When it comes to strength training, the similarities may come as a surprise. “Personally, I don’t change my strength training that much between 15s and 7s in regards to specific lifts,” said McCoy. “I place a greater emphasis on Olympic lifts and explosive techniques, single leg and single arm training as well as core stabilization in 7s. Floor conditioning can be substituted for the running, with the mental strain designed to push the athlete to feel uncomfortable."
Conditioning for Rugby Sevens
Unfortunately, we don't have time here to talk about all the different ways to get fit for rugby 7s season. But check out the resource below which will give you 11 awesome conditioning programs.
Staying on the Sevens field
Once the transition to sevens is made there are many ways an athlete can maintain and maximize their effectiveness throughout the season by following a few simple guidelines. Nutrition and training are important yet many athletes making the transition to sevens make the common mistakes of not allowing their body to acclimate for the conditioning required for sevens or not setting aside enough time for their body to fully heal between seasons. This is where overtraining can become a serious issue.
McCoy says athletes need to build adequate rest and regeneration time into a training program as well as a keeping up lifting regime that makes use of swimming pools, rowing and/or bike conditioning. This variation trains the three energy systems. Focusing on the technical skills, training and proper nutrition becomes second nature with just a little effort on behalf of the player. At that point staying in the game is as easy as getting together on the pitch and playing the sport that many have grown to love.