From the moment a hastily thrown together but supremely talented England side won the inaugural tournament at Murrayfield in 1993 to Wales’ shock success in 2009, Rugby World Cup Sevens has always been a tournament full of surprises, even if the names on the Melrose Cup are largely familiar ones.
In the men’s competition, New Zealand have the most titles with three, Fiji are next with two and England and 2009 surprise package, Wales, have one apiece.
The women’s competition has been running since 2009 and, again, Oceania teams have dominated with New Zealand winning two of the titles on offer and Australia the other.
In the last two Rugby World Cup Sevens, New Zealand have doubled up in both competitions, but with the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series one of the most competitive in living memory there will be several teams heading to South Africa hoping to add their names to the celebrated roster.
Here’s a look back at how previous editions of Rugby World Cup Sevens were won.
2018: New Zealand retain golden double
More than 100,000 fans – many of them first-time rugby watchers – flocked to San Francisco’s iconic AT&T Park and weren’t disappointed by what they saw.
There were 84 games over the record-breaking weekend, with 24 men's and 16 women's teams from five continents competing in the restructured straight knockout competition, where literally every match counted.
While Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 was being held on North American soil for the first time and under a different format, the result was familiar – victories for reigning champions New Zealand in both the men’s and women’s events. No-one would have foreseen men’s Olympic champions Fiji miss out on a medal altogether, however.
In the men's competition, as was the case in Moscow in 2013, England were no match for the All Blacks Sevens in the final. Clark Laidlaw’s side opened up an early 14-0 lead and went on to win 33-12 and followed their women in becoming the first team to win consecutive Rugby World Cup Sevens titles. South Africa beat a crestfallen Fiji to the bronze medal.
The Black Ferns Sevens also went back-to-back, or black-to-black as the Kiwi media branded the double win, after a 29-0 win over France. Michaela Blyde was virtually unstoppable throughout the tournament and a hat-trick in the final took her overall tally of tries to nine for the weekend.
USA had a chance to give the home crowd something tangible to cheer for but the Women’s Eagles Sevens fell just short of reaching the podium, losing the third-place decider 24-14 to Olympic champions Australia.
2013: Double delight for New Zealand
With the 80,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow providing the focal point, RWC Sevens 2013 served as a reminder of rugby’s increasing global reach as well as producing some compelling action on the field of play.
Rising to the occasion hosts Russia provided the story of the women’s pool stages. They followed a win against Japan and a draw with France with a dramatic 17-15 upset of England to top their pool. Russia would come unstuck in the quarter-finals, losing narrowly to a Canadian side who themselves went on to reach the final with a win over surprise package Spain.
In the end, though, nobody would have an answer to New Zealand, who arrived in Moscow as the inaugural Women’s Sevens Series champions and ran out 29-12 winners in the final with Portia Woodman and Kayla McAlister standout players.
The men’s tournament went largely to form, Wales providing the biggest shock across the six pools with victory over two-time champions Fiji, but their title defence came to an end against New Zealand in the quarter-finals. In the same half of the draw Fiji edged South Africa, while in the bottom half England beat Australia by a single score and Kenya needed extra time to see off France.
The rest of the knock-out stages fell prey to a spectacular electrical storm, the lightning overhead forcing Fiji and New Zealand off the pitch on safety grounds with the All Blacks Sevens leading 17-0. The score remained that way once play resumed.
The conditions underfoot were no better when England overcame Kenya 12-5, but in the final, England simply had no answer to an inspired New Zealand who won at a canter, 33-0.
With these two on the sofa, you know it's going to be good value 😂— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) August 20, 2022
☘️ @IrishRugby speedsters Jordan Conroy and @TerryKennedy14 are next up to look back on another #RWC7s classic
📆 21.8.22@FNBSA | #UnlessYourGreatness | #HereToSevens pic.twitter.com/WHqtfKtiPr
2009: Wales upset the old order
Seven months before International Olympic Committee members voted in favour of welcoming rugby sevens onto the Olympic programme, Dubai hosted the fifth edition of RWC Sevens but, crucially, the first to feature both a men’s and a women’s competition.
The action was intense from the outset and there were notable performances and upsets in the early rounds, but the tournaments will forever be remembered for an outstanding set of Cup quarter-final matches.
In the women’s event, USA and New Zealand passed through unscathed but alarm bells started ringing when South Africa shocked Spain and then Australia pulled off what seemed like a giant-killing against England.
One conversion proved the difference for favourites New Zealand over USA and when Australia saw off an inspired South Africa by a single try it set up a trans-Tasman tussle to determine the first women’s champions. It took a try by Shelly Matcham 36 seconds into sudden-death extra-time to split the team and ensure it was Australia who had their name engraved on the trophy.
The form book was well and truly ripped up in the men’s event as Wales beat 2001 champions New Zealand 15-14, England fell to Samoa in an extra-time thriller, South Africa came unstuck against Argentina and, most surprisingly of all, defending champions Fiji were taken apart by Kenya.
With a semi-final line-up consisting of Wales v Samoa and Argentina v Kenya, a new name was guaranteed to be on the Melrose Cup. Wales and Argentina made it through to the final which was on a knife-edge at 12-12 with a minute to go until Aled Thomas raced away to score the decisive try. Wales, the 80-1 outsiders, were champions.
2005: Double delight for Fiji in Hong Kong
Hong Kong became the first country to host two Rugby World Cup Sevens and Fiji the first to win the competition twice after dethroning New Zealand in front of another sell-out crowd.
Fiji and New Zealand went through the pool stages unbeaten, although not before the All Blacks Sevens survived an almighty scare from Tonga. South Africa bounced back from an opening day loss to debutants Tunisia to keep their Cup hopes alive while England won an equally unpredictable pool, on points difference from France and Samoa.
While New Zealand and England enjoyed convincing wins over France and Scotland in the quarters, Fiji had to dig deep to overcome Argentina 22-14 and Australia squeezed home 15-14 against South Africa.
Having seen New Zealand beat Australia 24-20 in the first of the semi-finals, Fiji needed a sudden-death extra-time score from Waisale Serevi to make the final and deny England the chance to hold both the Webb Ellis Cup and Melrose Cup at the same time.
Fiji then claimed the RWC Sevens title in an amazing show of power and strength, defeating New Zealand 29-19. It capped off a fairytale ending to the tournament for captain Serevi, who held aloft the Melrose Cup in the same stadium as he had eight years earlier. “The World Cup is special to me, and to win two in Hong Kong was a bonus,” he said.
There was further success for the Pacific islands with a strong-half surge seeing Samoa overcome Portugal 29-7 in the Plate final, while Italy beat Canada 7-5 to win the Bowl.
2001: Rush exit fuels New Zealand fire
In January 2001, the Argentine beach resort of Mar del Plata hosted the third Rugby World Cup Sevens and among the host of returning nations were four debutants in Kenya, Chile, Russia and Georgia.
Defending champions Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia topped their respective pools and were joined in the Cup quarter-finals by runners-up Argentina, Canada, England and Samoa.
Australia looked impressive, as had Fiji with Rupeni Caucau announcing his arrival on the world stage with seven tries in two games, while New Zealand suffered a huge blow when inspirational captain Eric Rush broke his leg against England. With Rush absent, a certain Jonah Lomu filled in and New Zealand still managed to reach the semi-finals along with Australia, Fiji, and Argentina.
Despite the support of the home crowd, Argentina were unable to rise to the same heights as they had done in beating South Africa in the quarter-finals, and lost 31-7 to New Zealand. The other semi-final was a much closer affair with Australia recovering from 14-0 down to beat Fiji for the first time in two years.
A new champion was guaranteed and New Zealand made sure it was them who added their name to the honours board with a 31-12 victory, Lomu scoring a hat-trick in a man-of-the-match display.
Russia overcame neighbours Georgia 24-12 to win the Plate final – thereby ensuring they were the highest ranked Europeans behind former champions England – while Chile edged Portugal 21-19 in the Bowl final.
1997: Serevi keeps his promise
Scotland may be the birthplace of sevens, but Hong Kong has long been its spiritual home. So it was only fitting that the second RWC Sevens was held there in 1997 – the 21st year of the prestigious Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
Fiji had arguably been the most impressive of the eight pool winners, the tournament favourites not conceding a single point in reaching the Cup quarter-finals and scoring 205 of their own. At the heart of Fiji’s progression was captain Waisale Serevi, the sevens maestro who finished the tournament with 117 points – 26 coming in the 56-0 quarter-final defeat of Korea.
Samoa were their next opponents, having ended England’s reign with a 21-5 victory, and Fiji came out on top 38-14. In the other semi-final, South Africa, inspired by captain Joost van der Westhuizen, proved too strong for New Zealand to end their hopes of a fourth straight victory in the Hong Kong Sevens.
The final was one of the greatest games of sevens ever seen and one that kept the 40,000 crowd on the edge of their seats until Fiji emerged 24-21 victors. Serevi had come good on his promise to bring the Melrose Cup home. “Sevens is part of every Fijian rugby player’s life and the Rugby World Cup Sevens means a lot to me and the people of Fiji,” he said.
Tonga overcame hosts Hong Kong 40-19 in the Plate final, while the USA beat Japan 40-28 to win the Bowl.
1993: Harriman springs England surprise
Murrayfield was undergoing a major renovation at the time of the first RWC Sevens which involved a wide range of countries including the likes of Chinese Taipei and Latvia. However, it was the established rugby-playing nations that made their mark, with Fiji, England, Australia and Ireland eventually emerging from a gruelling eight-match schedule as semi-finalists.
Willie Ofahengaue’s try in the final move of the match broke Irish hearts and secured a memorable 21-19 victory for Australia, while the other semi-final featured a tackle later termed ‘moment of the tournament’, Dave Scully felling the charging Mesake Rasari so clinically that it not only stopped the run, but also allowed England to win the ball and score a try en route to a 21-7 win.
The final was equally enthralling with England captain Andrew Harriman using all of his blistering pace to round David Campese for the opening try. Campese and Michael Lynagh were among the scorers for Australia, but it was England who won 21-17. With what was effectively a scratch side, England had become the first holders of the Melrose Cup.
The other nations celebrating at a cold and wet Murrayfield were Argentina and Japan, winners of the Plate and Bowl respectively. Argentina beat Spain 19-12, while Japan overcame hosts Scotland 33-19.