Alex Gray rugby ()Alex Gray rugby () © Copyright

What the devil is rugby sevens?

After 92 years in the shade, rugby is making a comeback to the Olympic Games. Last time out, a moody French crowd almost rioted as the USA beat them in a three-team tournament in Paris. This summer, rugby returns to the Olympic programme in the dramatic form of its fast-paced seven-a-side version. What started life as a training ground format for players to prove themselves before moving onto fifteens is now a professional sport in its own right. Sevens has a growing fan base and a world tour that is part festival, part rugby tournament. Taking place in the first week of the Games, 12 teams (including Team GB, New Zealand, South Africa and the US) will battle it out for gold. This turbo-charged version of the sport is not rugby as we know it, so Olympic hopeful and England centre Alex Gray is here to tell you what to expect in Rio.


“Sevens is a purer form of rugby, stripped back to the core without all the stop and start elements of the fifteens game. The aim of the game is the same: it’s still two teams pushing to score tries, passing the ball backwards to each other and the points system is still the same. But there are some major rule differences, which changes the nature of the game entirely. For a start, as the name suggests, there are only seven players on each side: three forwards and four back rows. We only have 14 minutes playing time: so seven minutes each half and a one-minute half time break.

Alex Gray playing Rugby sevens ()


"It might sound simple enough but we play on the same sized pitch as fifteens, so there is <a lot> more running with the ball. Because the game is over so quickly and we have so much ground to cover, we aren’t going to be wasting time. Everything is geared towards getting the ball back into play as quickly as possible. The conditions are extreme for the entire time we are on the pitch. Tactics like the use of scrums and lineouts are different too. They are only three-on-three situations and just used as a way to restart play rather than to gain any sort of advantage. The average stoppage is 15 to 20 seconds and then we’re off once again, so we don’t get to catch our breaths before we’re right back in it.”


“Because of the nature of sevens and how extreme it can be, our bodies are going to be different to the usual heavy set fifteens rugby players that people are used to seeing. We have these intense seven week programmes in the run up to a tournament where we just eat, sleep and train everyday, which is physically and mentally challenging. During the programmes our days are full where we are in at 8.30am and we won’t leave till 5.30pm. Within that time, there aren’t many rest periods: replicating the conditions of the tournament weekend. We are in the gym every day and on top of that we’ll be having four rugby sessions a week, speed sessions and work with the medical staff too.

Alex Gray playing Rugby sevens ()


"The main difference between fifteens and sevens training, besides the amount of running that we have to do, is probably the amount of times we touch a rugby ball. Some players only get to touch the ball once or twice in a fifteens training session but in sevens, you’re ball skills are as important as your explosive power, so you’ll be touching the ball 30 to 40 times. At the gym different players have different needs. For myself it’s mostly power-based exercises. The philosophy behind it is that you’re wanting to strengthen up the areas you’ll be using most during the game. Our power comes from our leg, lower body and core so that’s what we focus on. We mostly do clean snatches, jump squats, jumps and hurdles on to boxes to replicate what happens when you receive the ball and have to push off and run instantly away towards the try. After that, it’s just a matter of keeping our upper bodywork topped up and conditioned for the contact we are going to be taking.”


“The format of a sevens tournament is really tough. Having to go through the first day and play a load of matches, and then wake up for the second day and have to do it all again when you’re aching all over can be pretty brutal. The spectacle of the tournament is also really different to fifteens: it’s over a weekend, it’s like a festival and people like to dress up and party. Rio will probably be another level! The format will be slightly different at the Olympics because there are only going to be 12 teams that qualify into the three pools of four teams and instead of a weekend and it’ll be over six days instead. The game has really grown worldwide lately and a lot more attention will now be on it because of the Olympics so it’ll be interesting to see what people make of it. I think they’ll definitely enjoy the high octane nature of it and the end-to-end nature of it.” 

Alex Gray playing Rugby sevens ()




Strong head

“One of the biggest things about Sevens rugby is the mental aspect of the game. You have less players spread over a larger area so you have to be in tune with your teammates and be able to make decision much quicker than in a fifteens game.”

Soft hands

“It’s all about catch, pass and moving the ball into space at a much faster rate and longer than a usual rugby play lasts. Turnovers can be devastating and can end up with the opposition scoring a try within seconds so our ball skills are really important.”

Shoulder power

“We do shoulder work to make sure when we are putting in those big hits, we’re going to be solid and we’re not going to pick up any niggling injuries which can stack up to cause us bigger problems. Playing game after game in a two day tournament you have to make sure we keep ourselves as fresh as possible for as long as possible.”

Quick legs

“We are slimmer than rugby union boys because we need to get around the pitch faster and for longer so in that way, we have to be aerobically fitter. The stresses on your body are much different and being able to cover that much mileage means you have to change the way you train include more cardio.”

Light feet

“Obviously we need to be light on our feet and that means refining what we eat. Having to train for 6 to 7 weeks hardcore, you need to be fuelling yourself the right way to get through it. Unlike fifteens where they change their diet according to where they are at in the week leading up to a game, we keep ours quite steady throughout, even during tournaments.”


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