How to play Rugby Sevens
SINCE Rugby Sevens has half as many players as a normal game of rugby union, it should be twice as easy to understand. Unfortunately, the rugby law book makes the instruction manual for a Stealth bomber look like a model of succinct clarity, so for novices even the stripped-down game of Sevens is not simple to grasp.
A game consists of two seven-minute-long halves punctuated by a minute-long half-time break to allow beer-drinking fans to go to the toilet without missing too much of the action.
A Sevens team consists of three burly players called 'forwards', whose task is to wrestle the ball from the other team. This is to allow the more sylph-like players called 'backs' to score what are known as 'tries', worth five points each, by touching the ball down behind their opponent's goal line. Teams perform all sorts of ruses and tricks to score tries - although the use of weapons is banned, unless by prior arrangement.
Bizarrely for a game that places so much emphasis on possession, the match starts with one team kicking the ball to the other, and immediately trying to get it back. They charge at the man steadying his nerve to catch the high ball. If the receiver is lucky his teammates will bind around him to lessen the impact of the opposition's onslaught.
However, the cannier receivers get rid of the ball as soon as possible by flinging it at another teammate. Faced with the prospect of being walloped by the other side, the second man will in turn pass it on until finally it reaches someone who is in no position to pass it back to a teammate. To avoid the potentially serious physical damage caused by being hit by opponents weighing perhaps more than 100 kilograms, the player with the ball hares up the field, ducking, weaving and swerving, with a wild look in his eyes that says he is keenly aware seven powerfully built men are after his blood.
Unless the fixture is terribly one-sided, possession of the ball will frequently switch from one team to the other. Such a rapid turnover on a pitch that normally accommodates more than twice as many participants is terribly tiring and the laws of the game allow players several rest options.
For reasons too obscure to discuss in detail, the referee can call all the forwards together for a rest known as a 'scrum' where the six players lean against each other for a breather while the backs adjust their kit and check their hair is in place by glancing surreptitiously at their images on the huge diamond vision screen.
Another type of rest is known as the 'line-out' in which the players stroll to the side of the pitch after the ball has been booted off the field to wave at their friends or catch the attention of the beer sellers.
The referee can also penalise a team for reasons that are rarely apparent from the stands. When this happens the opposition retreats 10 metres and a member of the other team tries to kick the ball forward in a gesture known as a 'tap penalty'. Strangely, his efforts rarely cause the ball to move forward more than a few centimetres. So he picks up the ball and throws it at a teammate in the hope he can gain more distance by running with it.
Once the timekeepers in the stands have counted 14 minutes of play they blow an air horn, which to the uninitiated sounds unnervingly like a warning alarm that Daya Bay has blown a reactor. This is to tell the crowd the game is over.
The referee, while acknowledging he has heard the alarm, always insists the game carries on a little bit longer, just to show he is in charge. Once he does that the winner is the team with the highest number of points.