Boys and Girls Together:

A Prehistory of International Women’s Sevens

and how it may have led to rugby in the Olympics

my perspective

Emil Signes: November 27, 2012

(latest rev: July 2, 2013)

home / Rugby home


Background: Alex Goff's 2009 article in Rugby

Alex Goff published a Rugby Magazine article back in October 2009, "Why Should we Thank This Man for Rugby Getting  in the Olympics," in which he stated “Rugby would not be an Olympic sport without the women, and women would not have an international 7s presence were it not for one man – Emil Signes.”


I’m honored and humbled by that statement and don’t know if it’s true, but I would like to at least document, as much as I can, everything I said to Alex that was reprinted in the article. And more.  Document where I can, that is; some of these comments are based only on my notes at the time they happened.

Sadly, Alex's article is no longer "up" anywhere on the web; I have, however, saved it on my computer, and the text is included below.


The entire topic of rugby and the Olympics is obviously bigger than one person.  From what I've done, heard and read, however, the steps that were taken in the development of women's sevens in the USA in the 1980s and in the initiation of international women's sevens in the 1990s, were at least partly based on my efforts, and it's nice to watch it all develop.

by Alex Goff

Picture of EGS from Goff
Picture of me from Goff article

Alex's article follows in red (with my quotes in italics); my documentation and/or comments are inserted in green (or is it blue? :)

In 2005 the IRB was chastened. Rugby did not receive what many felt was an automatic “Yes” vote to put the sport into the Olympics. What had happened.

IRB CEO Mike Miller spelled out the facts a few months later in a small press conference at the 2006 USA 7s. Rugby had not embraced the spirit of Olympism to the right degree. But most of all, rugby had ignored the women.

Did they have a 7s World Cup for women? No. Did they even mention women in their promotional materials? Not really. Miller and the IRB knew what they had to do. They had to get serious about women's international 7s. [I hadn't realized that the IRB really cared; I'm glad they did. Even if it was only because that's what they needed to do to get on the IOC's Olympic sport radar.]

Now that rugby has been accepted into the Olympic Games, it’s fair to say that the IRB’s success is in part due to their support of the women’s game. Rugby would not be an Olympic sport without the women, and women would not have an international 7s presence were it not for one man – Emil Signes.

Signes pushed for years to get an international women's 7s  circuit and a 7s World Cup. It took longer than he hoped, but he was clearly proud to see the event take place in 2009. Not only take place, but be held alongside with the men.

Here (Signes's own words in italics) is how it all happened:

On May 15, 1996, the US received an invitation to the 1997 Hong Kong Invitational Women's Rugby Sevens (HKIWRS), a tournament to which 16 national women's teams have been invited.  Within a month we had accepted the invitation and I was appointed coach to the US national women's sevens team.

Here is a follow-up to that invitation, dated 24th August 1996.  It was addressed to Sallie Ahlert, USA Rugby Women's Coordinator.  After I had put in place a format to select a national team a couple of years earlier, Sallie had been pushing me (more on this below) to find a place for a national sevens team to play: finally it was happening!

Invite to 1996 HKW7s

We now
[I wrote in 1996]
have put in place a program to select a national team, and are moving full speed ahead.

The next step in providing international women's sevens venues happened so much by accident that it still cracks me up to think about it.  I found out exactly when it happened only in late June, when I read a May 1, 1996 article in the Eastern Express, a Hong Kong newspaper.  It quoted Hong Kong's Maria Allen, who said, "The United States team were in Dubai and were asking about an international fixture . . . and it was probably from that we thought we could maybe have our own tournament."

Well, that "United States team ... were asking" would be me ... and this is how it happened.  The US representative at the men’s Dubai Sevens in November 1995 was the invitational side Atlantis which I was coaching.  We had to be at the airport at 6am on the day following the tournament, and were a bit the worse for wear.  Next to us on the check-in lines were the Hong Kong Police women, who had won the women's bracket of the Dubai Sevens.  They were in no better shape than we, maybe worse.

Having listened to USA women’s sevens coordinator Sallie Ahlert badger me for three years about finding a venue for US women All Stars to play, and having been seven times, as either coach or manager to the men Eagles, to the Hong Kong Sevens, where good sevens play is venerated, I put two and two together and realized that these Hong Kong women rugby players might represent an opportunity to expand the Hong Kong Sevens to women's teams. 

I remember speaking to women's sevens chairperson Anne Marie O'Donoghue at the airport. I inquired about the possibility of the Hong Kong women driving an effort to use the success of the men’s Hong Kong Sevens to provide a venue for international women's sevens play (I was actually trying to lead them to find an arrangement where the US women could be involved in some kind of mini-tournament within "the" Hong Kong Sevens).  I was amused to discover, via the Hong Kong press, that that was almost certainly the conversation that finally got the ball rolling.

A funny thing, coincidence.

1996: our link to the Hong Kong Women's Sevens documented

Anne Marie O'Donoghue left Hong Kong not long after that meeting.  Although hers was the only name I recorded, it turned out that the other Hong Kong woman with whom I spoke in that informal airport encounter was Ruth Mitchell.  Ruth was one of Hong Kong's top players and also one of the leaders of the Hong Kong women's rugby community.  Ruth remembers that conversation very well.

I remember in that conversation that Anne Marie expressed concern that the local women had been given a little time for demo games on Sunday morning and she didn't want to lose that; also she didn't know that they were ready for such a grandiose scheme.  So we started with an invitational tournament that took place the day before the men's tournament.  There were only 4 teams scheduled to take part, and the Atlantis women were one of them.  In the end, there was a monster rain storm the night before the tournament and it was moved from a legitimate venue (Aberdeen Stadium) to an elementary school field with barely room for a sideline, and delayed by a couple of hours.  We won the tournament easily, but it would have died there, I think, except for one small fact: BBC commentator Ian Robertson was there.  More on this below.

Two articles from the Hong Kong paper, one from April 30 and the referenced one from May 1 are inserted below.

Article from April 30 Hong Kong Eastern Express:

EEx announce
          1997 7s

This article provided the good news, but it was the next day's article that gave some insights as to how they had decided to hold it.  From the May 1, 1996 Eastern Express:

EExp May 1
            1996 boobs and bums

There are a few key points in this article, which highlights a decision - to host international women's sevens - that will result in new-found respect for women's rugby in Hong Kong.  Maria Allan comments:  "all that [boobs and bums nonsense] might be about to change."  In column 5 she references the meeting in Dubai mentioned in Alex's article; she also references, in the 7th column (second column from the right), "we had a small tournament the day before this year's Sevens, a man from the BBC came down and he was absolutely raving, the skill level was so good." 

Well, as noted, that man was Ian Robertson from the BBC, a long-time commentator on the Hong Kong Sevens (and a former Scottish international and British Lion).  I knew Ian from the years I coached and managed the US men's national team at the Hong Kong Sevens - he used to come to our practices to familiarize himself with the players.  The team he was raving about was Atlantis (by the end of the day, we had emptied our bag of tricks, and they had all worked). 

The tournament was tiny, on a poor field, poorly attended, and the competition was very weak.  Not knowing that, we had practiced a lot of fancy crowd pleasing stuff at penalties, lineouts, everything.  And though our "crowd" was basically one person (and a couple of parents and a friend or two), that one person was absolutely the right one.  Ian told me later in the day how much he had enjoyed seeing us play. Had Ian not been there, I think this entire opportunity might have passed us by; the organizers were clearly affected by Ian's comments. It scares me sometimes to think how close we came to having this entire process delayed by - who knows how many years?

Note that there were a few things that still concerned the HK women. In the April 30 piece above, Maria Allan notes that the 1997 tournament will take place the week before the men's sevens, and "it won't be in Hong Kong Stadium - we're not going to fill 40,000 places and, in any case, the stadium will be closed while they prepare for the men's event."  I'll discuss later in the piece how, despite these comments, the final ended up in the stadium in 1999.

Our 1996 team? Well this was just a club tournament, and we played as the invitational rugby club Atlantis. Our team, however, comprised mostly international players; our goal was to impress.  Here is a team picture:

Atlantis Women at 1996 tournament

Atlantis Women, Hong Kong Women's Rugby Club Tournament, March 1996
Top, L to R: Emil Signes, Pam Irby, Nancy Fitz, MJ Mohl, Sallie Ahlert, Amy Westerman
Bottom, L to R: Janet Marshall, Tracy Moens, Candi Orsini, Patty Jervey, Kim Cyganik, Jos Bergmann, Suzanne Cobarruvias

Back to 1988: How the US prepared for Women's Sevens

Before going on, I'd like to back up to 1988, because that's where the story takes wings. The first-ever Hong Kong [men's] Sevens took place in 1976, the US was first-invited in 1981, and it soon became apparent that we could compete against anyone in this game.  I was named coach in 1986 and in 1988, when I was also a member of USARFU's Board of Directors, I was asked to chair a National Sevens Committee to spread the game of sevens throughout the US. One of the first things I did was to encourage all groups other than just senior men (there had been both a club and All-Star Sevens for the men since 1985) - i.e. senior women, collegiate, military, youth, etc. of both sexes - to organize their own sevens structure.

Donna Hylton of NOVA agreed to chair the women's effort, and although unsuccessful in generating immediate national interest, she did manage to establish a qualifying process and a club championship in the East, beginning in Norfolk in 1991.

In 1992, while I was assistant national coach to the US women’s 15s team, I helped Tara Flanagan organize the first-ever women’s Atlantis team, which participated in - and won -  Spain’s prestigious Benidorm Sevens.  We fielded mostly Eagles, and in the Benidorm final beat a Saracens (London) team that started 6 England internationals.

1992 Benidorm Atlantis
            women & Fiji

May 1992: Atlantis Women and Fiji men, Benidorm tournament champions
Atlantis, standing: Chris Harju, Kathy Brown, Mary Beth Spirk, Julie Drustrup, Krista McFarren
Atlantis, seated: Sheri Hunt, Tam Breckenridge, Tara Flanagan, Tracy Henderson (Moens), Elise Huffer
Note Waisale Serevi, seated left


The report of this tour got Oklahoma’s Sallie Ahlert excited about the prospect of All-Star Sevens teams.  When I told her I thought select-sides were pointless unless they had something to do, somewhere to go, she initiated a formal process to select an official West Women’s Sevens side that not only existed in name, but also traveled -- to Cape Fear in 1994 (finalists), Toronto in 1995 (finalists), and Las Vegas 1996 (champions).


Sallie even organized an unofficial national women’s club sevens competition in 1993 won by Southeast of Atlanta. (These unofficial championships continued for years until the first-ever official USA Rugby women's club sevens competition in 2011, won by the Berkeley All Blues. Women's All-Star Sevens began in 2001, when they were known as ITTs [Inter-territorial tournaments].)

Still, there was no place for a national women's team to go, which takes us back to my earlier comments about Sallie badgering me to find one.  In retrospect, her pestering me was certainly on my mind when I approached the Hong Kong women at the Dubai airport in 1995 to urge them to start a Hong Kong Women's Sevens. (I use the words "badgering" and "pestering" because that's the way I saw it at the time; in the end she just did what she needed to do to get me to act; I am certainly grateful for her persistence.)

But back to Alex's article; again italics are quotes from me.  He is writing about the 1997 Hong Kong Sevens, which took place the week before the men's Hong Kong Sevens.

1997-1999: A Start, a Hiccup, and a Leap

[1997]: The First International Women’s Sevens:
After a competitive first 10 minutes, in which New Zealand scored only on the first and last play, and a strong beginning to the second half, the US finally caved in to superior athleticism and the final score was not close.  New Zealand averaged 2 points per minute or more in all its games, and they were worthy champions.  Equally, we were clearly the second best team in the tournament, and our semifinal win over England was very exciting.

Twelve teams participated in the tournament. New Zealand and the USA were 5-0 in their pools. England and Hong Kong 2nd at 4-1.

In the Cup Semifinals New Zealand defeated Hong Kong 39-7, while in the much-anticipated match between the USA and England, the Eagles won 17-5, on two tries by Lisa Rowe and a try by Sue Parker. [It was a very satisfying win, as England were the reigning 15s World Champions, having defeated the US in the final of the previous {15s} Women's World Cup.]

Dianne Apiti
[later Kahura] scored 4 tries for New Zealand in the final and New Zealand were champions.

International Women’s Sevens at “the” Sevens.
When speaking with the Hong Kong women in 1995, I had hoped to get a women’s event associated with "the" Sevens.  In a 1996 repeat of that request, the word was that the women’s time slot at the Sevens was for "Hong Kong women."  While I was resigned to that fact this year
, assistant coach and manager Al Caravelli was not, and he and New Zealand coach Darryl Suasua convinced those in charge that the Hong Kong Sevens represented a chance to market women’s rugby to the masses, and that it was in everyone’s best interest to put on an event showcasing the best that we could offer.

Most players had gone home
[to repeat, this was a full week after the women's tourney], but there were quite a few good players remaining for the Sevens, and we put together a team of four New Zealanders (Anna Richards, Anna Rush, Maata Young and Monique Hiroranaa), three Americans (Anita Pease, Krista McFarren and Tracy Moens), one Australian (Libby Andrews), and Ruth Mitchell and Charlotte Cullen of Hong Kong to play in a “Hong Kong Women vs. the Rest of the World.”

The game was played at 9 AM Saturday, two hours before the first men’s match, but because of the queuing for seats, there were probably between 5,000 and 10,000 people already in the stands.  The Rest of the World won handily, but that wasn’t the point: the way had been paved for future, bigger and better, women’s participation in the Hong Kong Sevens.

Still, this little made-up game was far from what we were looking for.

Post-script on this article: In this article I referenced a person I had convinced to help me with the program, Al Caravelli.  Al came as assistant coach and manager and ended up helping me with all the programs with which I was associated, just as I now help him with the US men.

“Al,” I wrote, “brings a wealth of experience, intelligence, intensity, compassion and puts everything he has into every venture he undertakes. He was a vital cog in getting women’s rugby on the Hong Kong stadium turf in 1997.”

First-ever US women's 7s team
First-ever USA Women's National Sevens Team
Standing: Anita Pease, Sheri Hunt, Janine Cochran, Tracy Moens, Lisa Rowe, Sue Parker, Keirsten Lawton, Jen Lucas, Krista McFarren, Nancy Fitz
Kneeling: Emil Signes, Al Caravelli

[1998]: A step backward ...

The Women’s World Cup of 1998 dropped the number of teams available for an international sevens event in Hong Kong and to the great sadness of Signes and the USA team, the women's event was canceled.

This was quite a painful time.  I knew the Women's World Cup (15s) was taking place in 1998 and I was worried that, given the importance of the World Cup and the novelty of the sevens, the sevens would be canceled.  We had a selection camp scheduled and I didn't want to select a team that had nowhere to go.

But the Hong Kong Women assured me the tournament would go on.  Here's an email I received from Hong Kong on the 27th of January.

E-mail from HKW 1998 assuring us
          tourney was on
Email from Hong Kong Women telling us 1998 tournament "IS HAPPENING"

Unfortunately, the tournament did not happen, something we did not know until after we had had our camp - which players attended on their own funds and into which they poured their hearts and souls -  and picked our team.  What this meant was that we had picked a national team with nowhere to go.

The fact that we, along with the Hong Kong tournament, were ground-breakers for international women's sevens meant that, with Hong Kong out of it, we really had no other suitable place to go.  In the end we took the team to the Ontario Sevens in Toronto, an excellent and well-attended sevens tournament for both sexes. We won the tournament, but it was a disappointing turn of events.

1998 US Women 7s at Ontario 7s
The women's team that didn't get to compete in Hong Kong in 1998: Toronto, July 1998
Standing: Dawn White, Mary Beth Spirk, Al Caravelli, Julie McCoy, Anita Pease, Jen Lucas, Kerry McCabe, Emil Signes, John Tyler
Seated: TJ Eckert, Sue Parker, Meg Madden, Nancy Fitz, Shelley Wilson, Inés Rodríguez, Dee Jones

Some good came out of 1998, however: I attended the 1998 [Hong Kong] tournament as a journalist and had a long meeting with Dick Airth and Karen Robertson [of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union] about the future of the tournament.  I stressed that it would not only be in our interest but also in the interest of the tournament to have “some exposure” of the women to the fans at the Sevens.  Maybe, I suggested, we could have the tournament the day before the men’s tournament and have the semi-finals and finals, or at least the finals, take place in the Hong Kong Stadium during the men’s tournament.

Following the 1999 event, in which we did just that, I was touched when Dick Airth specifically credited that conversation as the catalyst for the integration of the women’s final with the men’s tournament.
[Dick mentioned this in a talk that he gave at the banquet following the women's tournament.]  A summary of what I wrote at the time follows.

1999. USA Sevens Women Make the Big Time

Hong Kong, Friday, March 26, 1999.  Playing in Hong Kong stadium during “the” Sevens in front of more than 20,000 people should be every ambitious rugby player’s dream.  Very few, however, achieve this dream.  Particularly women.  That’s because, until now, there has never been a significant women’s game played at this venue.

1999, the 24th year of the Hong Kong Sevens, was the first year that an important women’s match was contested in the hallowed ground of the Hong Kong Stadium.

Our primary goal was to get to that final.  And, with a convincing victory over a strong England team in the semifinals, we did it! That semifinal, incidentally, may well have been the first international rugby game in which identical twins – Jane and Emma Mitchell – competed against each other (Jane for the US and Emma for England).

In the finals, the US women gave New Zealand everything they could handle in the first half, holding them scoreless for the first seven minutes, and trailing only 0-5 at half time of the 20-minute game.  The US, in fact, was within 10 meters of the NZ goal for an extended period, and in the end it was our offense and not our D, that was to let us down.

On the sidelines as US team mascot was 6-year-old Kristina Caravelli.

The fans raved about the game, and our players were recognized, and complimented, by dozens of fans as they left the stadium at the end of the evening.  Furthermore, during the course of the next two days, several coaches, players, committee members and members of the media spoke to me with great admiration for the standard of play.  Even commentator David Campese, who two years earlier had said women shouldn’t be playing rugby, spoke positively of the game, and talking with him made it obvious he had watched the whole thing.

A quick aside to elaborate on the David Campese comment:  "Campo" was a legendary Australian winger in the 80s and early 90s; I knew him from our paths crossing many times; not only were we at the same events, but the US 7s team scrimmaged Australia on many occasions.  When I told him I was coaching the US women, he grumbled something about the unsuitability of women playing rugby (Campo is nothing if not opinionated). This particular evening, though, we met back at the hotel, and he was describing some of the play in that game in great detail and in a very complimentary fashion; as I noted above, it made me realize that he'd not only watched it but paid a lot of attention to it.  Funny guy, Campo.

Playing in the Hong Kong stadium in front of a huge crowd - and playing so well (both teams) - was super-important for women's rugby in general, and for the US women in particular (from our perspective, of course).  Our credibility was at stake. The preliminary games were played just down the road at the Hong Kong Football Club and we had to beat England to get into the stadium. It was a phenomenal win - and with two identical twins playing against each other, there was a little additional drama as well. 

Here's the US squad.  This picture was taken following the final against New Zealand.  The US lost the game, but the game won the future for women's sevens

US Women after 1999 HKW
US Women after Final -in "the" Hong Kong Stadium-, Hong Kong Women's Sevens 1999
Standing: Al Caravelli, Inés Rodríguez, Jane Mitchell, Erina Queen, Nancy Fitz, Diane Schnapp, Anita Pease, Emil Signes
Kneeling, players: Kim Cyganik, Michele Friel, Laura Cabrera, Lisa Rowe
Kneeling, mascot: Kristina Caravelli

So, as far as my influence on the process, with respect to the early Hong Kong Sevens I think I can fairly say something like "sine qua not yet."  It's hard to imagine international women's sevens not starting eventually, but without the 1995 Dubai meeting and the 1996 mini-tourney it wouldn't have started in 1997.  For what it's worth, Wikipedia, who has an extensive list of women's international sevens tournaments, lists the 1997 Hong Kong event as the first. And the second was in Hong Kong in 1999. And the third was in Hong Kong in 2000. (Well they list a couple of one-off sevens matches in the Caribbean in that time period, but my guess is that they played sevens because there weren't enough women playing there in those days for 15s.)


2002: A BIG Announcement, and then ... another delay ... 

New Zealand won the next 3 years, and in 2002 the IRB’s Jamie Scott attended the women’s banquet and outlined a plan that saw the women's World Cup 7s in 2005. Scott turned out to be 4-years premature, but, said Signes, "the handwriting never left the wall."

The following, from the Hong Kong Women's Sevens Program, was written by Jamie Scott, IRB Executive Council Representative, Asia. Jamie presented its contents to the women at our banquet following the tournament. It was exciting.

Jamie Scott presentation in 2002 HK
Jamie Scott in 2002: Jamie's note indicates the importance of the Hong Kong Women's Sevens
and the direct link between the Hong Kong Women's Sevens and the proposal to stage a Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens
and have rugby included - as a 2-gender sport - in the Olympic Games

2002/2009: Everyone's Work Pays Off

After that, the work kept getting done. Dubai held their tournament. The women's tournament in Hong Kong continued to grow, and when the USA 7s was started in 2004, there was always a women's presence. The USA didn't always win at the USA 7s, but they kept putting their handwriting on that wall, bringing in Canada, China, South Africa, England, and the New  Zealand Maori.

Following Hong Kong, other nations started to host women's sevens tournaments.  New Zealand hosted an international tournament in Wellington in 2001 and in Whangarei from 2001 to 2003; Japan held an international women's tournament in 2001 in Yokohama, and Fiji in 2003 in Suva.  The US attended all of them. Regional tournaments for national women's teams - in Europe, Asia, Africa, North America/Caribbean, and South America - began in the early 2000s and exploded with the 2006 announcement of a men AND women's Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2009, after rugby's 2005 bid for Olympic inclusion was turned down for lack of a suitable women's presence.

At the 2009 USA 7s the USA v. England game ended in a tie. The men's tournament schedule was almost sacrosanct and there was no time to play overtime. IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset didn't hesitate. "Play overtime" he said. So they did. Women's 7s had to have enough meaning to crown a champion.

The rest, as they say, is history. I left the women’s sevens position in 2005 (I had hoped to hang on till the first World Cup but 9 years was enough) and I’m now
[2008] back with the US men’s coaching staff as video analyst. Nevertheless the US, and now the world’s, commitment to international women’s sevens goes on. The World Cup Sevens for women was not held in 2005, but it will go on in March of 2009 in Dubai in conjunction with the men’s Rugby World Cup Sevens at the same event. The dream of the US women’s rugby community 20 years ago, my dream, Emilito’s dream, will culminate in reality … it should be a great event!

And I am thrilled to have sowed the seed that reaped such a bountiful harvest.

I have spent my entire rugby career trying to get the men and women of rugby to appreciate each other; hopefully this event takes us along the desired path.


While I’ve described a process in more or less chronological order, lots of things were happening in the background, some of which may be relevant to the final outcome, some of which are merely (but possibly interesting) footnotes.  The first one discusses creating an ambiance for the integration of men and women’s teams.  The second presents articles representing 25 years of speculation about rugby in the Olympics and a quick note on one of my earliest experiences coaching women’s sevens, followed by a very quick synopsis of the progression from teams like that to the Olympic games (my version, anyway).

1. Boys and Girls Together


To my mind the 2009 Dubai Sevens World Cup, with men and women’s games alternating on two fields (the main field in the stadium and a field behind the stadium with a nice hillside from which to watch) throughout the weekend – and 54,000 fans in the stadium - represented an event I’d been dreaming about for more than 20 years.  There have been men and women’s brackets at US sevens tournaments almost as long as there’s been women’s rugby in the US: the first such tournament I attended was the New York Sevens in 1975.   The first time I was associated with sevens teams of both genders was our local Bethlehem tournament, in which I coached both the Bethlehem men and women's sevens (the Hooligans and Maulie Maguires) starting in 1982. We spent a lot of time training together, playing touch together, and it worked out better than one might have thought.


At the elite level, the first event I recall in which I was affiliated with sevens teams of both genders was the 1992 Benidorm Sevens.  I attended in two functions: as manager of the US men’s team – who competed in the men’s international bracket - and coach of the women’s Atlantis team – in the women’s bracket.  As at most of these events, at the start each was wary of the other, but by the end of the week the players were best friends. Based on Facebook comments, they continue to look at that week as a great event for both rugby and social interaction. The men got to the semifinals, losing to champion Fiji, and the women won the tournament over a Saracens team of mostly England internationals.


Ironically, when they returned to JFK airport they received news of two not-so-friendly dual-gender national 15s tournaments (men’s All-Star and women’s clubs) held at the same venue in MN. (From what I heard, "not so friendly" was putting it mildly.) In contrast this sevens tour in particular – and sevens in general - proved to be a great way for players of both genders to interact positively off the field as well as being fans for one another on the field.


In 1998 the situation was reversed.  The US women’s national sevens team participated in the Ontario Sevens; I coached this team and Mary Beth Spirk coached the Atlantis Collegiate men (Mary Beth, incidentally, is now among the nation’s top 20 all-time winningest coaches in women’s NCAA D-3 basketball [at Moravian College]). The two sexes got along fine, the women – one of whom was future national sevens coach Jules McCoy –  acting as solicitous big sisters to the college boys.


Starting in the late 90s, there have also been a dozen joint men and women Atlantis tours: 7 to the Caribbean Sevens in Port of Spain, Trinidad (what a great venue!), 3 at Cape Fear, one to Brazil (a tour for the ages), one to Mexico, and most recently one to Cuba in 2011.

Atlantis men and women in Niteroi
        first night in Brazil
July 2002, Niteroi (just across the bridge from Rio): our first night in Brazil
Atlantis & Niteroi Men and Women celebrate after playing

For many years both the men’s collegiate All-Stars and the women’s U-23 team competed in the All-Star Sevens. On a couple of occasions we got together for a joint barbecue before the event.

Collegiate men and U-23 women in Utah
        ITT 7s
Men's Collegiate and Women U-23 at All Star Sevens, Utah 2007
Standing on left in black shirt & white shorts is Nate Ebner, now a defensive back for the New England Patriots (he had just graduated high school)

On one occasion – the 2011 CRC Sevens in Philadelphia – I was both coaching the Princeton women and helping to coach the Arizona men. We got together for a dinner prior to the tournament, at which a brief exchange took place that has made it into U of Arizona rugby lore: one of the Arizona players, making conversation, asked the Princeton co-captain who their biggest rival was.  She paused for a moment and said, “You mean academically?”

June 2011 CRC meal PU women and AZ
Arizona men and Princeton women share a meal in downtown Philadelphia at 2011 Collegiate Rugby [Sevens] Championships (CRC)

At any rate, to get beyond these anecdotes, the Rugby World Cup Sevens of 2009 in Dubai has shown how successful these joint tournaments can be.  54,000 fans throughout the weekend loved every game, both men and women’s.


At one point, I’m told, NBC, who televises the CRC Sevens, haughtily dismissed any notion of televising any of the women’s games at the event: “Do they televise the NBA and WNBA games together?” was one of the ridiculous comments they apparently made.  Well, no, but those games aren’t less than 20 minutes long nor played in strings of several unrelated games at a time in packed stadiums. Most major sports have events that are 2 hours long, or longer.  In sevens rugby we can fit 6 games into a 2 hour time period; why not mix men and women’s games?


The IRB is in the process of putting together a mostly separate circuit for the women.  Recognition of international women's sevens as an entity in its own right is a great thing; nevertheless I'm not crazy about that idea.  In my view it’s important – and eminently doable - that these be tournaments in which both sexes participate on an integrated basis.  The proposal to hold separate events for the women has as its purpose equal treatment of the sexes, and it's also true that currently women are not given equal time in the main stadiums at IRB World Series events.  Nevertheless, although it's easy to make the women's tournaments separate, making them equal will be more difficult than people imagine. I envision an event where 50,000 enthusiastic fans see the best rugby players in the world - of both sexes - on the same stage  We did it - and we did it well - in Dubai in 2009. We do it in track and field. For now at least, I'm convinced that “boys and girls together” is the way to go. We have a team sport that uniquely - by virtue of 15-minute games - lends itself to that treatment.

I could be wrong. But my heart tells me I'm right.

US Men and Women Gather at Qualifier
        for 2009 RWC7 (Bahamas)
October 2008: US Men and Women in the Bahamas for 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens Qualifiers ... both qualified

2. 1975-1994: Olympics Past and Potential ... then women's sevens in the 80s and where it led

I have subscribed to Rugby (AKA Rugby Magazine) since its original January 1975 issue, when it was, albeit briefly, called Scrumdown, and kept virtually all the issues. It's interesting that at the inauguration of this magazine there had - as of January 1, 1975 - as yet been no national American rugby team - except those that represented the US in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics.  More than 50 years later, the inaugural issue's cover picture was of the 1924 USA Olympic Champions.  Looking both back into the past and forward into the future, the Olympics were always on our minds.

Cover of first Rugby
Cover picture of first-ever issue - January 1975 - of Rugby (then Scrumdown)

In 1984, Rugby again featured an article on the 1924 team, as told from the perspective of one of the last survivors, Norman Cleaveland.

1984 feature article in Rugby on 1924 Olympics
Start of a long 1984 Rugby article by one of the US players recalling the 1924 Olympic victory

This article appeared shortly after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Rugby then took the opportunity to move from the past to what it hoped would be the future.
  There were two other articles in the same issue. These articles were written not only nearly simultaneously with the Olympics but also as the IRB was about to announce the first Rugby World Cup ever, for 1987.  Why not, David Bruck asked, go right on to an Olympic appearance in 1988 in Seoul? The quality of most sports, argued Nigel Starmer-Smith, was enhanced by their participation in the Olympics: why not rugby?

            84-Rugby in Seoul?

1984 articles by David Bruck and Nigel Starmer-Smith.
Bruck, noting that a Rugby World Cup was about to announced for 1987, says, regarding the Olympics, "What about rugby in '88?"
Starmer-Smith notes that Olympic participation makes sports stronger.

The next article I found in Rugby was an editorial by Ed Hagerty in the July 1994 issue and was titled "Sevens Rugby in the 2000 Olympics?"  Obviously it didn't happen; there was an interesting comment in this article, however: IRB Secretary Keith Rowlands was interested in recognition but not Olympic participation.  Why? England and Wales and Scotland wouldn't be allowed to play. Sigh.

This was the first time that I had seen sevens mentioned in print as a potential Olympic sport, and I salivated.

Hagerty re
            2000 Olympics?
Rugby Magazine article in July 1994 issue: how about Olympic Rugby in Sydney? And on top of that, ... sevens!

In December 1994, Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that rugby was back as an Olympic sport, but it would have to wait 10 years to appear. (That would have made it 2004.)

1994-12 Samaranch re Olympics in 2004

December 1994: Yet another tease. It didn't happen in 2004 (but the word "sevens" was mentioned again).

Forward to the Past - Early women's sevens: I was there

Now let's get back to the women.

Note that even though "sevens" was being mentioned as a potential Olympic format as early as 1994, not one article mentioned women's rugby - which as we've seen, turned out to be the final key factor in rugby's acceptance by the IOC - at all. I had already become slightly involved with women's rugby in the 1970s (shortly after it first began) and became more so with women's sevens by the early 1980s: through the 1980s and early 1990s I coached both the Bethlehem men (the Hooligans) and the Bethlehem women (the Maulie Maguires) in the art of sevens. Both won many tournaments.  Here's a picture of the Maulies after they defeated Philadelphia to win the Schaefer Sevens in Bethlehem in 1983.  Even though we were operating deep in the shadows of mainstream US (and world) rugby, some of us were quietly following what turned out to be the yet-undiscovered path to the future. For those that know them, both MA and MB (Sorensen and Spirk) are here: see caption. It's the earliest picture I have of any women's sevens team that I've coached.

                win 1983 Schaefer (Stroh's) Sevens   
The Maulie Maguires go through the Philadelphia Women's tunnel after winning the Bethlehem Sevens in 1983.
In front with the ball is MB Spirk, who now is among the top 20 winningest NCAA D-III basketball coaches (478 wins last I looked)
To the left, with the pigtails, is future US XV's prop and anesthesiologist Dr. MA Sorensen.

This was my women's sevens world in the 1980s.  It wasn't the only one in the US.  At the same time, Florida State was beating up on everyone at Cape Fear; until, that is, they were upstaged by the upset-minded Maryland Stingers in 1986.  More women's teams, it became apparent, were now taking sevens seriously.

The process in a nutshell. 
The upsurge in women's rugby through the 1980s led to the US women's community's positive response to my 1988 call for a women's sevens program (thanks, Donna Hylton; thanks, Sallie Ahlert). That program led to national championships, and what was basically a one-off international-level sevens match (Atlantis vs Saracens, Benidorm Sevens Final, 1992).

The Benidorm experience raised to fever pitch our desire for true international women's sevens. This search led to the 1995 encounter with the Hong Kong women at the Dubai airport, which was just a brief, but ultimately significant, conversation.  This led to the Hong Kong Women's Club, then International, Sevens (1996 & 1997). The 1997 tournament is the first-ever documented women's international sevens. A conversation with Hong Kong Sevens organizers after a canceled event in 1998 led to the 1999 women's final being held in the Hong Kong Stadium during the men's tournament.

From 1999 forward, the skillful play of the Hong Kong Women's Sevens finalists in Hong Kong Stadium - always during the men's event - demonstrated to a rugby world longing for participation in the Olympics that the women were ready, willing, and able to make that possible.  These performances plus an increase in the number of international women's sevens throughout the early years of the new millennium** and the IOC's insistence that women be a part of Olympic rugby, led to the 2006 decision to make the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai an event for both sexes; this World Cup plus the intrinsic beauty of sevens (and 54,000 enthusiastic spectators watching both the women and the men) wowed the IOC Board members in attendance, and ... voila: Olympic Rugby!!

** By 2013 Wikipedia had listed more than 30 international women's sevens events in each of 2011 and 2012.

By the way, in the future, we won't have to preface the kind of rugby we play by saying "Um, it's rugby played with seven people instead of the usual 15," we won't have to explain why the halves are so short, etc ... we'll just be able to say what we're playing is "Olympic rugby."

It's been a blast!

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