1966 was a great year for English sport, whatever else happened that year it is remembered for being the first year of the National Pub 7s at Harpenden RFC.
Back in 1966 there were no leagues in Rugby Union and the professional era was still over 20 years away. Rugby clubs would arrange matches with other clubs against whom they had enjoyed playing year on year and with whom they had enjoyed many an after match beer in the club house. On a normal Saturday, the 1st & 3rd XVs (no substitutes allowed in those days) would travel away one week (often by coach as cars were few and far between for young rugby players) whilst the 2nd & 4th XVs would travel away the following week. A try was worth three points only, the same as a penalty but kicking a penalty from anywhere not in front of the posts or beyond the 25 yard line was no easy matter with a very heavy slippery leather rugby ball. Rugby Union, like many other activities at the time, was heavily regulated with the RFU forbidding clubs from playing rugby on a Sunday or before the end of September/beginning of October.
It was under these conditions that a few young men decided that they wanted something to do on a Sunday just before the start of the rugby season and so they decided to start a seven-a-side competition for players of Harpenden Rugby Club and a few friends from other clubs in the locality. With the active encouragement and support of Reg Johnson, the landlord of the Cross Keys, a Harpenden hostelry well frequented by players from Harpenden Rugby Club and the sporting fraternity generally, a fun 7-a-side completion was started with competing teams adopting the names of public houses (so as not to offend the RFU).
The first event took place on 17th September 1966 (the third Sunday of the month so as not to interfere with the upcoming rugby season) and attracted six teams. Word soon spread that the competition provided everything that a rugby player could wish for – great sport, great competition, great fun and a great social event. Over the next few years the competition grew and grew as players of every shape, size and ability were attracted to the tournament where players at the lower levels of the game could mix, play and compete against the game’s stars.
Throughout the 70s and 80s the competition continued to thrive and often attracted 60 to 80 teams. It continued to embrace social players and international players alike and for a time attracted a higher standard of player than the Middlesex 7s. Players such as Andy Ripley, Peter Winterbottom and Ian Bishop used the Harpenden National Pub 7s as a pre-season warm up and an opportunity to enjoy the fun and friendship of rugby. The competition attracted teams from all over England and from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Holland, the Middle East, Nigeria and, on one occasion, the United States of America.
The coming of the professional era in the 1990s had many radical effects on the game of rugby. One effect was that the most senior players, being bound by contracts to their own clubs, are no longer masters of their own destinies as their contracts often (if not “usually”) prohibit them from taking part in competitions such as the National Pub 7s. However, Andy Gommersall was widely quoted in the national press in 2007 as having regained his love of rugby after having been “dumped by Worcester” by playing for the White Hart Marauders in the 2006 competition – scoring the winning try in the final in extra time undoubtedly helped! Only a year later he was playing for England in the Rugby World Cup Final in Paris.
In recent years, although the number of teams entering the competition may have fallen to around 40 to 50, the National Pub 7s is still a major event in the rugby calendar. Top 7s teams, such as the Samurai, the White Hart Marauders, the Sun Inn, the Orange Tree, the British Army and even the English national 7s side, have regularly entered, and sometimes won, the competition.
The underlying ethos of the National Pub 7s is never forgotten in this truly amateur area of the game; that is for everyone to have fun in taking part, whether as a spectator or a player.