Rugby at the Rio Olympics Will be Fast and Furious: Understanding the Differences Between Rugby Union and Rugby Sevens

Japan rugby union team in gloucester brave blossoms
The Japan National Rugby Team wins three times at the World Rugby Championships in Gloucester, Scotland in October.

The surging love for rugby in Japan has been driven by the success of the Japan team, aka “The Brave Blossoms”, in the recent Rugby World Cup Championships in Gloucester, Scotland last month. The team’s three victories at the tournament drew attention to the fact that the next Rugby World Cup Championships will be held in Japan in 2019, a year before the 2020 Olympics, when rugby will continue as a participating sport after its Olympic debut in Rio in 2016.

But the rugby we watched at the Rugby World Cup Championships is significantly different from the rugby we will see at the Olympics. Rugby Union is the name of the sport that is challenged at the Rugby World Championships, and it requires 15 people aside. Rugby Sevens, which people will see at the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, place seven people aside, even though the size of the field for both sports are the same: 100 meters long by 70 meters wide.

Thus, Rugby Sevens is faster. On the same size pitch, you can imagine that it is easier to defend with 15 people on the field as opposed to 7, which is what Rugby Sevens, appropriately named, requires. So instead of getting pushed, pulled, banged, tripped and generally hit every meter of the way in a Rugby Union match, you have open spaces, breakaways and sprints in a Rugby Sevens match. Instead of the bulky, squarish hulks you tend to see in a Rugby Union match, you’ll see muscular but lither athletes who can run world-class sprinting times.

Rugby Sevens is also shorter in duration. Rugby Union plays its matches in 40-minute halves, closer to the duration of soccer and NFL football games, while Rugby Sevens’ games are made up of 7-minute halves, or 10-minute halves for championships rounds. In other words, Rugby Seven matches finish in the amount of time it takes to play half a Rugby Union match. And fans and casual fans alike have taken occasional jabs at the seemingly slow pace of scrums in Rugby Union matches, where a large number of heavy athletes wrap arms in a pile that seem to do little but kill time.

Because of the above differences, the scoring in Rugby Sevens are perceived to come fast and furiously. Just watch this video compilation of scores made by the Rugby Seven speedster, Carlin Isles.

Now if you want me to further confuse, I could attempt to explain the difference between Rugby Union and Rugby League (and their 13 aside rules)…but I will not attempt a try.