This weekend, the World Cup for the sport of rugby sevens is being played in San Francisco.
I’m not a huge rugby fan, and I don’t really understand the game, which seems to depend heavily on subtleties of the rules that govern exactly what you can and can’t do while bodies are strewn in piles on the ground after one player tackles another (which happens a lot). But I enjoy watching nearly any new (to me) sport, and trying to figure out what’s going on. And there’s plenty of scope for that in rugby.
Rugby sevens differs from rugby union chiefly in the size of the teams – seven for sevens, of course, and fifteen for rugby union. Apart from that, the differences in the rules are much less than the differences that separate rugby union from rugby league. And yet the games have a very different feel to them.
Perhaps the most curious thing about rugby sevens is that the games are so brief. They have two seven-minute halves, measured by a clock that rarely stops, with just two minutes between halves. The game rarely takes more than about 20 minutes, start to finish. I cannot think of any other team sport where a full contest takes less than an hour or so, and most are much longer. Is this the sport for short-attention-span moderns?
Apparently from the players’ point of view, these short games are quite long enough. They manage to score roughly the same number of points in fourteen minutes as rugby union players score in eighty. And those minutes are a whirlwind of activity – a mixture of very fast sprints, which are nearly continuous, and heavy physical contact. Even elite athletes would not be able to maintain such a pace for much longer.
This mixture or rapid movement and hard contact seems most akin to ice hockey. Hockey games are longer, but players are able to manage the length only by being constantly shuffled on and off the ice, with each shift lasting no more than a couple of minutes.
There is some tendency, recently, to try to make games in professional sports shorter. In England, for example, there’s a movement afoot to create an even shorter form of cricket. T20 cricket, which takes about 200 minutes to play, seems recklessly rapid to those who revere test cricket, with it’s five-day games. But television seems to want something that will fit (with plenty of commercials) into a 150-minute time slot.
But twenty-minute professional sports fixtures? If this is the wave of the future, I’m just as happy to be mired in the past.