Rugby World Cup Sevens: Become an instant expert

Are you feeling World Cup withdrawal, but would prefer a tournament that encourages tackling and lets everyone use their hands? Pull up a chair and crack open a cold beverage — it's rugby sevens time.

Everything you need to know ahead of the showcase in San Francisco

Fiji and South Africa enter the World Cup as favourites on the men's side, but anything can happen in the unpredictable sport of rugby sevens. (Olly Greenwood/AFP/Getty Images))

Are you feeling World Cup withdrawal, but would prefer a tournament that encourages tackling and lets everyone use their hands?

Pull up a chair and crack a cold one — it's rugby sevens time.

The 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens returns this week, running from July 20-22 in San Francisco. The men's and women's tournaments will be contested at AT&T Park — the San Francisco Giants' waterfront ballpark.

Here are some of the major teams to watch, as well as how this tournament works, and a breakdown of the rules and intricacies of rugby sevens.

The usual suspects in an unpredictable sport

New Zealand's formidable men's and women's teams won the last edition of the World Cup in Moscow in 2013, while the Australian women's team and the South African men's squad enter as reigning champions of the HSBC World Series.

Fiji can't be counted out on the men's side though; the 2016 Olympic gold medallists and their high-tempo, creative offence make them a constant threat no matter the opponent. The United States could also emerge as a dark horse candidate to disrupt the established order, with the hosts boasting speedsters like Perry Baker and Carlin Isles.

European powers like England and France should also be considered contenders in both the men's and women's tournaments, but the unpredictable nature of sevens opens up the possibility for upsets at every turn.

"If you're on the circuit, and if you follow the circuit closely, you know that anyone can beat anyone," said Canadian standout Nathan Hirayama.

Canada's women's and men's teams each enter the tournament after trying seasons on the World Series, but both are optimistic they can make an impact in the Bay Area.

Perfect sport for binge-watching

New to rugby sevens? No problem. This condensed version of rugby union is perfect for binge-watching — considering each match is 14 minutes and there's dozens of them daily — so you can pick up on it quickly.

Here are some key things to know about this fast-paced sport:

  • The ball can be kicked forward or passed backwards or laterally.
  • Scoring consists of tries (touching the ball down in the opponent's end zone for five points), conversion kicks after tries worth two and penalty goals worth three.
  • After a penalty, play restarts with either a scrum or free kick, which can be taken long for distance or quickly on a "tap and go."

Also, equipment is minimal in rugby. Just an ovular ball, two goalposts at either end, and enough medical tape to wrap the Golden Gate Bridge from end to end.

If anyone asks you to summarize this version of rugby, use the following mnemonic device: Seven on seven playing seven-minute halves (Say that seven times fast!).

What's different about the World Cup?

This year's World Cup has a different structure. You can read a full explanation here, but what it amounts to is a knockout-style bracket that has a few extra twists involved.

The top eight men's teams have an automatic bye to the second round, while the remaining 16 must face off in order to advance. From there, teams that win continue on to the Championship Cup bracket, while losing squads compete in one of two consolation brackets.

(Rugby World Cup Sevens San Francisco 2018)

In the 16-team women's tournament, the first-round winners advance to the Championship Cup quarter-finals, while the losing teams are relegated to the consolation Challenge Trophy bracket.

(Rugby World Cup Sevens San Francisco 2018)

While the organizers are optimistic about this new format, Canadian men's coach Damian McGrath is more critical of the setup.

"It's virtually a straight knockout, which I think talking to most coaches among the World Series teams is not a very popular thing," McGrath said. "You could lose your first game and that's your tournament over."

Normally on the international circuit and at the Olympics, teams are divided into pools for round-robin play, with the top two in each pool advancing to the quarter-finals. The bottom teams from each pool on the World Series play in a consolation bracket. 

McGrath would prefer this system stay, as opposed to the World Cup setup, which he said is "not universally popular amongst the sevens contingent."

Secrets to sounding smart

Still craving more rugby knowledge? Memorize these facts and you'll be ready to shoot the boot in no time:

  • If the ball is passed or fumbled forward, a knock-on penalty is called. In this situation, a scrum is used to restart play. Three players bind together (the equivalent of a front row in a 15s scrum) and engage with the opposing forwards as the middle players vie for the ball with their feet.
  • Penalties in rugby aren't whistled dead immediately. To keep the game flowing, referees will play advantage, similar to a delayed penalty in hockey. If the offended team gains enough field position, the penalty is forgotten and play continues. However, if no advantage is gained, the play will be blown dead and a restart will be taken from the spot of the penalty.
  • There are an infinite number of kicking techniques, but the most unique is rugby's answer to the basketball bounce pass. Kicking the ball on the ground and having it bounce up chest-high on the third bounce is known as a grubber. It looks great when it works, just don't practice inside your house.


Benjamin Blum

Senior writer

Benjamin Blum is a senior writer with CBC News and previously worked with CBC Sports in the same capacity. He holds a master's of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax.


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