Brendan Gallagher laments the passing of rugby’s great occasion – the Middlesex Sevens

Wigan SevensFor decades the last weekend of April/first weekend of May always meant the Middlesex Sevens and although time moves on I’m not quite sure rugby has ever properly replaced that unique and now disbanded event which for so long was so much more than a rugby tournament.
For years the Middlesex Sevens, disbanded in 2011, was the only trophy you could physically win in English rugby, an oddity in a game that for so long turned its back on leagues and cups. A big part of sport is holding the silverware aloft and the bragging rights that confers and for many years  holding the Russell Cargill Trophy was a rare tangible moment of triumph.
The trophy, incidentally, now resides at the RFU Museum.
As a fan you could walk up on the day and buy a ticket and experience Twickenham for a fraction of the price it would cost on international day. And if you couldn’t attend in person it was the one rugby occasion outside of Five Nations and November Tests that the BBC covered live rather than waiting for Rugby Special the following evening. Luxury.
At regular intervals Grandstand used to dive over for selected games and then they would switch to BBC2 for the semi-finals and final and highlights from earlier games. Bill McLaren always used to say a day at the Middlesex Sevens was his toughest commentary gig of the season.
Crowds grew to be massive, in excess of 65,000 by the halcyon years in the late Eighties. When Harlequins beat Bristol in the 1988 Middlesex Sevens Final there were nearly 30,000 fans more in attendance than had been at Twickenham seven days earlier when Quins beat the same opponents in one of the best Pilkington Cup Finals.
It was big-time and, among many things, before the days of academies, LV=Cups and A-leagues a great opportunity to first cast your eyes on some of the stellar stars of the future.
The Middlesex Sevens was also always definitively the end of the season; no more rugby in Britain anywhere until September 1, so there was a wild demob atmosphere. The biggest al fresco club dinner in the world, a ritual drinking and eating to excess and communal throwing of bread rolls so to speak.
In its heydays – the Seventies and Eighties in my estimation – security was non-existent so my polyglot group of disreputable alcoholics from Exeter University, Portsmouth Poly and Old Reigatians – used to brazenly march in the moment the gates opened with a 72 pint barrel of Wadworths 6X which we used to place delicately atop the old South Terrace.
Heroically we would resist and give it an hour or two to ‘settle’ before starting to drain it. It was amazing, incidentally, how quickly you made friends when running a bar on the South Terrace.
Big ‘eskies’ – full of cold pre-cooked sausages, scotch eggs, cheese and pickle sandwiches, chilled wine and much else – were also permitted by indulgent stewards and on one occasion we also smuggled in the component parts of a barbecue which we re-assembled next to the barrel thus establishing base camp for a long day.
Alas the dramatic papal-like rising smoke which issued from the barbecue at lunchtime, when some joker nearby emptied the contents of his Watney’s Party Four on the coals, could not be ignored by officialdom. A shirt-sleeved police officer stirred himself from slumber to demand its removal from the ground although mercifully the beer barrel was allowed to remain. A yellow card rather than red, it was always that sort of day.
As the ale took hold streaking used to be the in-thing – I much prefer John Arlott’s term “freaking” – but very quickly that became rather passé although there was still a certain kudos to be earned climbing the posts naked in between games. There were occasional half-hearted ejections from the ground although the offending party, wrapped in a blanket, was usually allowed back in half an hour later to collect his or her clothes and to return to the party. Again yellow rather than red.
Organised chaos, civilised debauchery, raucous in the extreme.
The ‘entertainment’ – at lunchtime and then in the long 50-minute break between the semi-finals and final – must have been ordered up as a job lot directly from the Royal Tournament at Earls Court. There were marching bands, Met Police dogs running through hoops and jumping over vaults and various exhibitions of unarmed combat by Gurkha divisions and brick smashing by karate black belts.
On special occasions the Red Arrows flew past and dipped their wings, on the way to somewhere else, and we had Marines abseiling down ropes from helicopters. Once I recall a RAF parachute display team which miscalculated and ended in the West Car Park, where I trust they were royally entertained. There wasn’t an X-Factor singer to be seen or heard, thank God.
The stadium announcer Peter Yarranton, no mean raconteur, used to warm to his task and read out various risqué coded messages from fans before leading the crowd in a massed version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The only songs I can remember spontaneously emerging from the inebriated masses were Cheer Up Sleepy Jean by the Monkeys and Jeff Beck’s Hey Ho Silver Lining. Well there were a few others but not repeatable in these more enlightened days.
And, of course, there was the rugby. The game I remember has always been the cracking final between London Welsh and the Public School Wanderers in 1972 which the Welsh won 22-18. Welsh included Gerald Davies, John Dawes and JPR Williams as well as their resident Sevens specialist Billy Hullin while the PSW arrived in London with two relatively unknown ‘flyers’ in a youthful JJ Williams and the less-vaunted Viv Jenkins from Bridgend. On the day I’m not sure Jenkins wasn’t the most dangerous runner on view but the Exiles with their three Lions just prevailed with Gerald snaffling a late winner. That match and those teams ticked every conceivable box.
“The Middlesex tournament was extraordinary and we had crowds bigger than the internationals some years,” recalls Davies. “I loved Sevens, they were a platform to perform but you could also be exposed horribly. I used to get very nervous before a game, just as much as an international and we had four or five games in an afternoon. There was just seven of you and a massive pitch, you had to perform. No hiding.
“Peter Yarranton set the tone on the mike, he was a one-man cabaret from morning until dusk and the atmosphere was extraordinary. I’m pretty sure you could get a rover ticket which entitled you to go everywhere except the president’s box so fans could move around during the day and meet up with different people.”
Another memory is the comic moment when Will Carling was denied a try in the 1990 final against Rosslyn Park which Quins won 26-10. First credit where credit is due, Carling was a cracking, if reluctant, Sevens exponent and was arguably the player of the tournament as Quins swept to their fourth consecutive victory. Alas, however, he will be remembered mainly for the try he didn’t score.
The young England skipper was distinctly sharp in those early days and he absolutely shredded Sevens specialist Simon Hunter – a noted gas merchant – on the outside to trot in from 60 yards out. Except that former Quin Alex Woodhouse hadn’t stopped chasing and as Carling gathered himself to touchdown the Park skipper snuck in on the blindside, lifted his former colleague up bodily in the air, soon to be assisted by Hunter who had also kept chasing hard. An early and deadly effective choke tackle. As you can imagine Will didn’t get any stick from the crowd whatsoever after that. Not one bit.
Perhaps the most eye-popping day in the tournaments history was 20 years ago when Wigan RL were invited down,  a significant thaw in Union-League relations. Wigan scored 25 tries in their four matches beating Richmond 48-5, Harlequins 36-24, Leicester 35-12 and finally Wasps 38-15 in the final. Their squad that day was right off the Richter scale. Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah, Gary Connolly, Shaun Edwards, Scott Quinnell, Andy Farrell, Inga Tuigamala, Henry Paul and Kris Radlinski.
In many ways it was no surprise that they conquered all. Tuigamala, Offiah and Quinnell were experienced former Union players and Edwards had represented England Schools at Union while the others were simply stunning talents well suited to the Sevens game.
On the day, before he got injured, Paul was the master playmaker but at various times all concerned demonstrated their world class and my memory is that this was the day Rugby Union folk started to properly appreciate League.
The duel code double header between Wigan and Bath that had been staged in the previous fortnight, although a novel idea, had rather polarised opinion and if anything fuelled the old arguments.
After the 1996 Middlesex Sevens we could at least all agree that the Wigan Seven were magnificent rugby players. End of.
Six years later it was Henry Paul’s brother Robbie who took centre stage when Bradford Bulls became the second League team to win the title, Wasps again copping it in the final with a 42-14 thumping. Paul was much assisted in his efforts by the blockbusting running of Tevita Vaikona and Leon Pryce, nigh on unstoppable one-on-one in Twickenham’s wide acres.
As with any Sevens gathering the talk eventually gets around to the quick men, the speed merchants. Who was the quickest of them all at the Middlesex Sevens? Quins speedster Andrew Harriman, with a 20.9 200m to his name, probably tops that list, at least for the long runs but there have been others who could match him, or who were possibly even quicker, in shorts bursts. His club colleague Everton Davis was one and Loughborough Colleges flying machine Keith Fielding was another.Andrew Harriman
Gerald Davies was blazingly quick and another Exile, Clive Rees, used to leave vapour trails all over Twickenham. JJ Williams had posted a 10.6secs 100m two years before he appeared at the Sevens and another athlete/rugby player was Wasps’ Paul Sampson who ran 10.48 as a schoolboy when he beat Dwain Chambers to win the England Schools 100m.
Martin Offiah wasn’t exactly slow for Rosslyn Park or Wigan, either.
They could all shift, although some only had a couple or runs per game in them. Others like Josh Lewsey could keep going all day while the likes of Jason Robinson was untouchable over 20-25 metres. Of the old timers you always hear mention of John Gibbs and Richard Hamilton Wickes from the Quins team that won four trophies on the trot in the competition’s early days.
Great memories, albeit fading.

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