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It’s a game of seven gazelles rather than eight buffalos and seven gazelles,” is Rugby Football Union competition manager Chris Burns’ eloquent comparison of the skilful-running, tough-tackling wonder-try fest that is seven-a-side rugby with its 15-a-side big brother. “Sevens is more tactical, more about positioning on the field and speed.”

“It makes better players,” explains Simon Amor, 26, who captains the England Sevens team “There’s much more one-on-one so handling skills and tackling come into play a lot more. It’s also great for wingers who might only get to touch the ball a couple of times in a regular match.”

Indeed, though there are less players, sevens uses the same pitch as 15-a-side rugby so teams are spread more sparsely and must play a faster game, more dominated by running and passing. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there are many more tries per minute than in regular rugby. “Rucks and mauls are very brief affairs, usually involving just two or maybe three from each team,” says Burns. “The three-man scrums are pretty messy. If they go against the head, it’s because the ball’s popped out between a prop’s legs.”

Sevens is much shorter than the full game, at seven to 10 minutes a half instead of 40. But that doesn’t make it any easier: “It’s absolutely shattering,” says Amor. “You’ve probably got to be fitter for sevens. In World Series tournaments you play seven games leading up to a final, all on the same day. One of the biggest challenges is doing the games one after the other – warm up, play, warm down, rest, over and over.”

Until recently, sevens was something of an afterthought to the real business of the 15-a-side game. Much like five-a-side football, it was played for fitness and skills practice at the beginning of the season or for fun at the end. Since the International Rugby Board set up the World Sevens Series in 1999, though, it is gaining more respect.

The series is an annual competition between 33 national teams, competing in eight full tournaments at worldwide venues from South Africa to Singapore. The money, glamour and recognition are beginning to attract some big names too: Dan Luger, of England’s 2003 World Cup winning team, is in England’s Melbourne squad and more than a third of the current 30-man English Six Nations squad regularly play sevens. Amor himself plays rugby union for Gloucester.

With Gloucester, Amor trains twice a day from Monday to Wednesday, has a day off on Thursday, a run on Friday, a game on Saturday and a recovery session on Sunday. Sevens training is fitted around this schedule. “The main challenge is keeping in shape for a long period of time,” he explains. “As well as the training, I eat a lot of carbs and protein and keep fat levels down. Fitness is the key ingredient. It’s very tough, it’s very tiring but the rewards are worth it. I get to represent my country, play the sport I love and travel the world.”

For the amateur, fitness levels will depend on who you’re playing with, although taking part in such an intensely physical game regularly is naturally going to improve strength and cardiovascular capability.

If you don’t want to be too committed, there are plenty of relaxed games to join. You don’t even need 14 people to play in the park with jumpers for try lines. Dylan O’Connor plays 15-a-side for Richmond thirds in the winter, then sevens with friends in Richmond Deer Park in the summer. “It’s friendly and everyone’s welcome. Whether you can just catch a ball or you’ve been playing for 20 years, you can wander up and join in,” he says.

If you want to avoid the game’s more bruising aspects but still reap the fitness rewards, then “touch” sevens might be an idea. Rather than flinging yourself at an opponent to make a tackle, you just have to touch them. Even more than sevens, “touch” favours the small and lithe over the big and burly so mixed teams can play. Worthing Rugby Club runs sevens evenings in the summer with teams comprised of two men, two women and three children. Many local clubs have similar events.

Those feeling particularly sporty could try the RFU’s Summer Sevens Tournament, taking place on Wednesday nights from June 14 to July 26 at Ealing Trailfinders Club in west London. It’s a round-robin event, with every team playing in at least two matches a week. Chris Burns says: “Last year’s inaugural competition tended to attract divisional level clubs – the likes of Ealing, Twickenham and so on.” This year organisers are hoping to attract more amateur teams. It’s taken seriously, however. It costs £360 per team a year to play; there are yellow and red cards; suspensions; and each team must provide a touch judge.

For those who prefer to watch, tune into the Commonwealth Games Sevens, which start this week in Melbourne. Unlike some of the sports at the Games, this will genuinely be a competition between the world’s best. Of the 11 top teams in the 2005/2006 World Sevens Series, nine are going for gold in Melbourne (only France and Argentina are missing).

Among the contenders are New Zealand, who won the two previous Commonwealth golds; Australia, with home advantage; Fiji, the World Series 2005/2006 leaders; and England. “We’ve got a very good chance this time,” says Simon Amor. “We won the last World Series tournament but Fiji, the Aussies and the Kiwis are all very good.”

Amor’s hopes look well-founded. England are currently second in the World Series. When they last played leaders Fiji, in February, they hammered them 38-5. Wales and Scotland, also competing, are not expected to reach the medals podium but in sevens anything can happen.

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