Rugby 15s vs Rugby 7s

June 20, 2023

As spring turns to summer the 7s season begins.

Rugby 7s was originally devised in Melrose Scotland by two Butchers, Ned Haig and David Sanderson in 1883 as a fund-raising event for their local rugby club RFC Melrose. Since then it has spread across the globe, the HBSC 7s series plays tournaments all around the globe from Hong Kong and London to Las Vegas and Paris. 

In terms of big rules, there is little to no difference between the two codes. You still pass backward, tackle below the neck, get five points for a try and 2 for the conversion.

The first and most obvious difference between Rugby 15s and 7s is in the name. Rugby 7s is played with seven players three forwards and four backs, while 15s is played with 15 players eight forwards and seven backs. 

The number of players has a huge effect on the game. In 15s there isn’t much space you will almost always have two or three players who can hit you on any carry. Since 7 is played on the same size field as 15s there is a ton of space and most of the time you only have one player marking you. Because of the added space, you get more time on the ball to make decisions, which leads to a more expansive and flair-filled game. Since you are defending a space that you usually defend with 15 players with 7 players, the amount of running you have to do is crazy. 7s teams are also only allowed 5 interchanges through the game. Lots of space to cover and few substitutes lead to fatigue as the game goes on, giving players even more time and space. 

7s games are also far shorter than 15s games. 15s games are 80 minutes divided into two 40-minute halves. Whereas 7s games are 14 minutes long dived into two 7-minute halves. 7s is a shorter game due to the amount of running required it’s so high that any longer and the game would devolve into basketball on grass pretty quickly (no beef with basketball).  

The shorter length of the game has a few knock-on effects around procedures. Teams only get 30 seconds to attempt the conversion and conversions must be drop-kicked rather than taken from a tee. 

Drop kicking conversion is not only harder than place kicking, which is already hard, but the little time allowed for the conversion gives the kicker little time to catch their breath and take the kick. To combat this at the professional level it’s usually the try-scorer who takes the conversion. For the players not taking the conversion it gives them little time to catch their breath or talk tactics before they have to get set for the kickoff and play resumes. 

Since the game is shorter the sin bin period for yellow cards is also shorter. Instead of 10 minutes like in 15s it’s just 2 minutes. Red cards still require one team to play a man down permanently. 

Since there are just 3 forwards per team scrums are just two front rows. Getting the ball out of the scrum and players getting out and into attacking shape quickly is prioritized rather than trying to force penalties or tire out opposing forwards. 

Lineouts are more frequent and a bit weirder since there are just 3 forwards you only have one pod of two lifters and one jumper. So the scrum-half throws the ball into the lineout, runs around to receive the ball and pass it to the backs. Since everyone is doing something at all times at the lineout you don’t see mauls or trick plays, the goal is to get the ball wide as quickly as possible. It’s also very common to see teams take quick lineouts. It allows them to attack a tired defense and a disorganized defense. 

The final major rule difference is that in 7s the team that scored the try kicks off to the team that concedes, unlike 15s where the team that concedes the try kicks off to the team that scored. Kickoffs are also generally more important in 7s than 15s, fewer people to cover the kickoff means there is more space to land the kick. It’s not uncommon to see tries from kickoff returns or tries from the team regathering a kickoff.  

 Those are the major rule differences, there are also differences in how the game is played. For one the pace of a 7s game is a lot quicker than 15s. In 7s it’s a greater risk to contest the beak down because you have fewer people covering more space. If a player contests a ruck and doesn’t have an impact it leaves the rest of the team covering the field with one less player. Because of the risks involved with attacking a breakdown teams don’t try and slow the ball down as much, giving the attacking team quick ball more often than in 15s. 

Quick ball combined with more space means that linebreaks are as simple as beating one man so they are a frequent occurrence. Since it’s so easy to break the line it means that simply running the ball is the main method of gaining territory rather than by kicking, like in 15s.  This means that it’s not uncommon to be attacking a broken or scrambling defense which makes scoring a lot easier for the attack. It also means that support play in attack is very important if you can turn breaks into tries or clear out quickly and efficiently your attack will find 7s very easy. 

For the defense, it means that being an effective tackler is incredibly important. If you miss a tackle it’s likely that the opposition will get behind your defensive line. Linebreaks are going to happen so it’s important that your scramble defense is good. This means making long sprints to track back and tackle the ball carrier and/or mark his support options. 

Not every rugby player is well suited to the shorter game. 7s requires good speed, agility ball skills and above all endurance. Because that most props, all but the most mobile hookers, most 2nd rowers and even some back rowers will find converting to 7s hard. 7s as a game generally favors small quick players who have good skills. The skillsets that a lot of forwards have are not as important in 7s as they are in 15s. Even the scrum and lineout can be done by smaller players in 7s. For example, in last year’s Goldcoast 7s tournament, ASU had a series of 3 attacking scrums where a center in 15s was playing hooker and two wingers in 15s were the props. 

7s is best suited to backs and some backrowers. Backrowers and centers are often forwards. The backline positions in 7s are similar to the backline found in 15s. In 7s the backline is comprised of a scrum-half, a fly-half, a center and a winger. A backline player in 15s can usually play every position in a 7s backline depending on their exact strengths and weaknesses. Fullbacks can play either fly-half, center or wing. Most fly-halves stay either stay as a fly-half when converting to 7 or move to scrum-half or center. 

In the forwards, some 2nd rowers, some hookers and most backrowers are well suited to 7s, their power, size and contact work are still necessary. Forward in 7s are not as specialized as in 15s so they can play any position. Teams just need to be conscious of having the right blend of skills in the trio they pick. 

Despite its difference from 15s, 7s is still a great way to develop skills and stay in shape over the summer. 

Alexander MacDonald: Journalism student at Arizona State’s Cronkite School and 3rd-year scrum-half manager for ASU Rugby.