Rugby Union: Search on for sevens haven

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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS nothing is sacred in rugby these days, not even the greatest beano of them all - the hallowed Middlesex Sevens. This venerable tournament, now in its 73rd season, has embraced the good, the bad and the ugly facets of amateurism, from Mexican waves which rain pints of beer on bystanders, to some stunning tries and thrilling matches; everyone had always participated for love and always it has been in the "mirie month of May".

But now questions are being asked whether it has the appeal it used to hold. Last year it attracted 53,000, this year just 47,000 turned up. The car parks were again full yesterday, but a ban on the sale of alcohol in the ground and the absence of some big stars left gaps in the stadium. And that could lead to a notable gap in the rugby calendar.

The organisers may propose a radical rethink. If the introduction of prize money last year had the car-park revellers choking on their carefully cut smoked salmon sandwiches and spluttering into their bubbly, just wait until they hear what is likely to happen if a revolutionary plan is approved.

Only the major clubs and a few special guest sides will be involved when it moves to August in 2000. The aim is to try to turn the Middlesex Sevens into the northern hemisphere equivalent of the Hong Kong Sevens. There will still be a competition for junior sides in May, but that will not be held at HQ. The tournament is at present not sponsored, but that would also change with the new set-up.

On the pitch not a lot changes. Laps of honour to a standing ovation for the underdogs after a thrashing, the odd streaker, hoarse hysteria. Okay, there was pounds 50,000 at stake for the winners, but there was also a sense of enjoyment as the 16 teams put on a spectacular show.

The try of the day came in the opening round. The Barbarians, whose scratch side won the competition last year, knocked London Welsh into the Plate competition. The Baa-baas - aka Fiji, given the number of players featured from the land of sevens rugby - did not score it amazingly. It was actually Welsh who dazzled with their opening try, scored by Steve Pilgrim following a superb passage of play and some imaginative handling and running. Later, on their way to the Plate final, there was a hat-trick for James Storey, son of the television athletics commentator Stuart Storey.

Saracens and Wasps met in the quarters in a repeat of last weekend's Tetley's Bitter Cup final. It was close, but Sarries went through to the semi-final only to be brushed aside by a very slick Leicester outfit, while in the other semi-final the Baa-baas pulverised the Kenyans.

The Baa-baas looked as if they would blitz Leicester in the final, especially when the star of the tournament, Panila Qauqau, ran in four stunning tries to bring his total for the day to eight, but Leicester fought back to respectability thanks to their own stars Geordan Murphy and Duncan Roke, among others. The Plate final added a touch of nostalgia with Welsh meeting Rosslyn Park, long time darlings of rugby's contribution to the strawberry season. Welsh won, comfortably in the end.