The end of an era?
July 6, 2011
ULR Samurai won last year's Middlesex Sevens © Getty Images
Any rugby fan with a love of history and nostalgia should try to get to Twickenham this weekend for the Vauxhall Middlesex Charity Sevens because rumour has it that this could be the last.
The first tournament was in 1926 and since then it has raised over £10 million for charity. It used to mark the end of the rugby season - a glorious party at HQ where the minnows got a chance to tilt at windmills on the first Saturday in May before everybody departed for the summer break. No rugby was allowed after that date.
In my playing days all the top London teams took part, they fielded all their stars and there was huge kudos to be gained from winning the trophy. It even merited its own report in the Rothman's Yearbook.
There were only two invitation sides, the finalists from the previous season gained automatic entry but all the other clubs had to qualify through a series of satellite tournaments all over the London area the weekend before the main event.
Over 500 clubs would be fighting it out for the remaining 12 places with the so called senior clubs seeded so that they would not come up against each other until finals day. Those qualifying tournaments were no pushover.
Every junior club dreamed of their day in the sun, the weather was always perfect, and the big clubs had to fight tooth and nail. It was like playing five consecutive cup finals and there was usually one major upset with one of the minnows - Fullerians, my school old boys, made it one year I remember.
It grew and grew in popularity, reaching its height in the 70s when the 'Rover' tickets that allowed you to explore every corner of Twickenham had to be replaced with numbered seats or standing because the ground was almost sold out.
With no restrictions there were huge parties in the car parks - full blown barbecues were the order of the day, everybody vying to outdo the adjacent group - drink was taken by everybody except the players who simply joined the party when they were knocked out of the tournament.
I remember it with huge affection because it gave me my first taste of the big time. It was 1966 and I made the Loughborough Seven at prop. The students of Loughborough and St Luke's were always jeered as 'professionals' - people assumed we ran around playing rugby every day which was totally untrue - but Loughborough had broken the London Scottish stranglehold - they had won it five years out of six - a couple of years before.
It was one of those days when everything went right - partly because we had a certain Gerald Davies in the centre who wreaked havoc - and we beat Northampton in the final. To make things perfect I scored two tries, one direct from a line-out that I somehow won against Peter Larter and Jim Parsons, who both went on to play for England in the second-row!
There were four Welshman in our team and that night we went to London Welsh to celebrate. I was invited to join the club there and then, that's the way it worked in those days, because I was taking up a teaching post in London the following September. Little did I realise where it would all lead.
In the early 70s London Welsh took over as the team to beat . We won three in a row which was no real surprise because we could field seven internationals if we wanted - including the unstoppable Gerald!
Gerald Davies ran riot in the centres © Getty Images
It became traditional to boo as we took the field - all good natured , we took it as a mark of respect - but it was something of a shock to our lads 30 years later when the PA Announcer invited the crowd to give the Exiles 'their normal welcome' - none of them were born when London Welsh ruled and they couldn't understand what they had done wrong.
There was not much serious rugby played after Easter in those days but the tournament started to lose its lustre as soon as the season was extended to incorporate cup-finals and play-offs. I believe it was the Bath players (when they were England's top club) who first asked not to be considered because they were still concentrating on XVs.
From then on there were fewer and fewer star players involved. Middlesex have valiantly tried to keep it alive, changing format to suit changing times, and even last year there was support from eight Premiership clubs.
Now they have withdrawn to support their own competition and it looks like curtains for the grand old tournament. A mish-mash of invitation sides does not have the same appeal and, unless the junior clubs are given the chance to qualify to have a tilt at glory, it looks doomed so party hard, Saturday could well be the end of an era.
There would be a certain symmetry if London Welsh could pull off one last victory but I shall not be wagering a great deal!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh