It had all the makings of a wonderful day at The Greenyards, the sun choosing to shine itself on proceedings from the off as the 126th Melrose Sevens got underway on the morning of Saturday, April 8.
A more picturesque sporting vista would be difficult to find and although national teams were slogging it out at the majestic Hong Kong Sevens on the same weekend, Melrose’s flagship event proved once again that the original home of the shortened rugby format will always hold a special place in the sport’s heart.
An entertaining Preliminary round saw Stirling County produce the most impressive performance, as they knocked out a Glasgow Hawks squad containing no fewer than four full-time professionals. Tjiuee Uanivi, Peter Murchie, Matt Fagerson and the recently-signed Paddy Kelly are all Glasgow Warriors, yet their opponents ignored such lofty opponents in a superb 26-22 win.
Invitational sides have always been a cornerstone of the Melrose Sevens, with some of the very greatest of all time having graced The Greenyards in yester years. Salubrious names like Serevi, Campese and Skinstad have all at one time or another rampaged the Borders turf and in recent years several full internationalists have done likewise.
This year, Harlequins and Sweden represented the stand-out seeded sides, with Co-Optimists and GSI 7s squads making up the rest of the invited teams. Melrose, Jed-Forest, Edinburgh Accies and Watsonians were the four club sides afforded a passage into the First Round proper as the tournament sought a first Scottish club winner since the hosts triumphed in 2011.
The biggest shock of said round was Jed-Forest falling at the hands of Currie, whilst Selkirk dumped out the GSI 7s side in another surprise result. Sweden looked ominously good as they thumped Heriot’s to become the final side through to the last eight, while Harlequins, packed full of youth internationals, annihilated GHA.
The Melrose Sevens really comes alive in the latter stages, as ‘serious’ contenders meet and the vociferous crowd becomes more lively on account of thirsts having been quenched. We were guaranteed at least two Scottish club semi-finalists because of the nature of the draw and it was Watsonians who came through first, beating rivals Currie 17-7 in an entertaining fixture that could have gone either way.
Harlequins almost met their match in the shape of Edinburgh Accies, but greater experience and a shade more quality saw them home 29-22 in what would be their closest tie of the afternoon. The English Premiership side, whose squad was littered with players that could very well become household names in the recent future, were clearly aiming for the title and in squeezing past a good Accies side, had their focus reset.
Melrose then got past Selkirk in a hotly-anticipated Borders derby, although their victory was a generous end result of a slightly lacklustre showing. The last quarter-final saw Sweden, so impressive in beating Heriot’s, heavily beaten by the Co-Optimists, who themselves played with a number of Irish Academy youngsters and looked every bit potential Ladies Cup winners.
Entering the final fixtures, it looked as though the afternoon was set for a final between two of the invitational sides, such was the quality on show from Harlequins and the Co-Optimists. The former duly beat Watsonians 40-12 to secure their berth, the irrepressible Charlie Walker showcasing his considerable sevens talents to marshall his side home. Walker has made over 60 full appearances for Quins and it told, the 24-year-old quite comfortably looking like the best player on display throughout.
Melrose upset the apple cart, as they have so often done at their home event, and nudged past the Co-Optimists 21-19 to the delight of the vast majority of thousands of engrossed spectators. Trailing 7-12 at the break, the genius of Austin Lockington, coupled with the roar of the crowd, saw the locals lads squeezing into a final showdown with Quins, a repeat of the very same final some 30 years ago.
Amid frenzied support, Melrose attempted to win their own event for the 12th time, against a Harlequins outfit that had scored over 100 points in their three matches. In a see-saw battle, during which both sides received two-minute penalties courtesy of yellow cards, Melrose were 14-12 ahead at the interval as onlookers started to believe victory was within reach. However, Quins’ greater experience and fitness probably told in the end, the English side coming home 31-19 in one of the most memorable finals of recent times.
A packed Greenyards stayed to applaud both courageous sides, as Harlequins lifted the Ladies Cup 30 years on from doing so against the same gracious opponents.