For spectacular end-to-end excitement, there is no sport like rugby sevens--except perhaps that special brand of basketball played by the Harlem Globetrotters.
Sevens is exploding. The IRB World Series is one of the most reliably exciting competitions in international sport and is carrying sevens to countries, Kenya for example, where the game's fifteen-a-side equivalent has struggled to establish itself. In 2016, sevens will become an Olympic event; few Olympic debuts have inspired such anticipation.
But, although rugby fans devote hours to picking all-time rugby fifteens, few seem to do the same for sevens. That's a shame: picking an all-time sevens squad has been one of my favourite games since childhood and has become even more fun since I became a sportswriter. Shown below is my finalised selection.
The squad is pure fantasy, open to any player from any era, whether a sevens or fifteen-a-side specialist. As it seems incongruous to pick an all-time team and then choose for it a coach, whose principle job would be to pick the team I have just picked, I haven't chosen one. If I were to choose a coach, however, it would be the incomparably qualified Gordon 'Titch' Tietjens, whose fantasy sevens team can be seen here.
1. Jonah Lomu (New Zealand)
Even two decades after we first saw him play, it is hard to believe Jonah Lomu actually existed. Standing 6'5'', weighing between 19 and 20 stone (around 270 pounds) and able, while still a schoolboy, to run the 100m in 10.8 seconds, Lomu seemed like he had been built to a blueprint of the perfect rugby player. In the fifteen-a-side game he was terrifying; in sevens, he was invincible.
4. Eric Rush (New Zealand)
The greatest servant of New Zealand sevens, Eric Rush began his career as an indomitable winger and ended it as an indomitable forward. I've picked him here at hooker, from where he could marshal the play of this all-All Black pack. Were not for a certain Waisale Serevi, Eric Rush would be the name most often associated with sevens.
2. Michael Jones (New Zealand)
So many of the key qualities of an openside flanker in fifteen-a-side rugby--cardiovascular fitness, a scavenger's spirit, the ability to be first to the ball and first to the breakdown, and what Bill McLaren called 'adhesive hands'--are the key qualities of a great sevens player. Michael Jones embodied them all; he was the player Richie McCaw wishes he could be.
3. Gareth Edwards (Wales)
There have been many astounding scrumhalves--Ken Catchpole and Nick Farr-Jones of Australia; Sid Going of New Zealand; and Joost van der Westhuizen of South Africa prominent among them--but they compete only for second place in any all-time ranking. Gareth Edwards simply stands alone. Just imagine the magic Edwards (often called the best ever fifteen-a-side player) and Serevi (generally called the best ever sevens player) could conjure together as half-backs.
5. Waisale Serevi (Fiji)
In Fiji, rugby sevens is the national sport--and Waisale Serevi is the national hero. He is to sevens what Pele is to football: the name most synonymous the sport and the automatic answer to the question of who is its greatest ever player. Serevi wasn't just the finest sevens specialist we can ever expect to see: he was one of the most exquisitely skilled sportsmen of the century. He would, of course, captain this side.
6. Danie Gerber (South Africa)
Apartheid prevented Danie Gerber playing his full part on the international stage; consequently, many rugby fans are unaware of the finest outside centre their sport has ever seen. Those fans often argue over who was greater: France's Philippe Sella or Ireland's Barry O'Driscoll. At his best, Gerber played like the two put together; there could be no better choice to play centre in a sevens side.
7. Eric Liddell (Scotland)
In sevens, one attribute eclipses all others: speed. The fastest player is often the best player--and no one who ever played international rugby was as fast as 'The Flying Scotsman' Eric Liddell.
Immortalised in Chariots of Fire, Liddell won the 400m gold medal at the 1924 Olympics and broke the world record in doing so. He also took bronze in the 200m and was Great Britain's best hope in the 100m, from which he withdraw for religious reasons when his heat was scheduled for a Sunday. The gold medal went to Harold Abrahams, Britain's second-best 100m sprinter.
Alongside his athletics career, Liddell played on the wing for Scotland. What a joy it would have been to see him at the Melrose Sevens.
8. Zinzan Brooke (New Zealand)
A goal-dropping, try-scoring, long-passing, lineout-winning back-rower, Zinzan Brooke was the most complete forward ever to play rugby union. I include him in this all-time sevens squad without the slightest doubt or hesitation, just as I would include him in an all-time rugby XV.
9. Va'aiga Tuigamala (New Zealand and Samoa)
When rugby union turned professional in the mid-1990s, it meant that a team from rugby league's Wigan Warriors could invade the 1996 Middlesex Sevens. They won with embarrassing ease and seemed sent not so much from another code as from another planet.
Although they fielded several other stars--including Shaun Edwards, Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah and Andy Farrell--it was the rampaging Va'aiga Tuigamala, the two-code, two-country international, whose performance was most memorable. A brutally effective centre and winger in the fifteen-man game, Tuigamala could of course play those positions in this squad, but would be even better deployed as a forward.
10. Phil Bennett (Wales)
The perfect cover for scrum-half, fly-half, centre and even wing, Phil Bennett, with his adventurous vision, unreadable sidesteps and scintillating acceleration, is a must-pick here. His initiation of the fabled 'Barbarians try' in 1973 was one of the finest pieces of sevens play ever seen--even though it occurred in a fifteen-a-side game.
11. David Campese (Australia)
On 2nd November 1991, David Campese's nefarious knock-on in the Rugby World Cup final cost England the Webb Ellis Cup and broke my nine-year-old heart. On 5th November 1991, atop our annual bonfire, my family burned an effigy of Campese instead of a Guy.
But even I can recognise that there is no position in a sevens backline from which Campeses, top-level rugby's most prolific try-scorer, would not create an uncontrollable threat for any opposition. He played fifteen-a-side rugby as if it were sevens; he played sevens as if the game were so easy for him it was unfair to his opponents that he was allowed on the pitch.
12. Marika Vunibaka (Fiji)
No one could unleash the attacking potential of a sevens side like Waisale Serevi--and the attacking potential he unleashed usually belonged to Marika Vunibaka, whom Gordon Tietjens called the fastest player he has ever seen. To omit Serevi and Vunibaka from an all-time sevens squad is unthinkable. For so long, they were the John Stockon and Karl Malone of rugby--and, like Karl 'The Mailman' Malone, Vunibaka always delivered.