1981 ->: Early History of  US National Sevens Rugby Teams

1. 1981-1985: US International Sevens Begins

The Hong Kong Only Years

Emil Signes

JANUARY 9, 2016
(rev. 2/6/2016- 18:48)


Background and Summary

It was brought to my attention that, as our beloved sevens game has become an Olympic sport after many years of the World Series of Sevens, the early pioneers of sevens in the US could well fade into the background. The difficulties we faced, even the occasional ridicule of sevens as a worthy game, will be forgotten. It is my hope to shed some light on those early years, as they deserve to be celebrated. It is my intention in this article to present, for posterity, the early history of the US's participation in international sevens rugby beginning with our first-ever national sevens team, the 1981 Eagles. 

The approach will be chronological, with a brief introduction incorporating the history of sevens prior to 1981.  The World Series of Sevens began in 1998 and the first few years - including the US's loss of core status to regaining it 2008-09.  From the time we were resettled into core status the history has been covered by others.

International sevens was men-only through 1996.  I was named coach to the Women's National Sevens Team in 1996.  We held a large camp in Philadelphia in August with just Hong Kong's word that there would be a tournament the next year.  In 1997, international women's sevens was officially inaugurated at the Hong Kong Invitation Women's Rugby Sevens (HKIWRS).  The women's game continued to expand, first beyond Hong Kong, then as participants in the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai, then as part of its own World Series of Sevens, and finally as equal participants in the upcoming (as I write) first-ever rugby sevens at the 2016 Olympic games.  Both US men and US women have qualified and will be among the small group of 12 teams of each sex at the Olympic event.

As I was the founder of the US women's sevens program - which ushered in international sevens* - I take great personal pride in the story I tell in the following link.

* see
Boys and Girls Together: Olympics and Me

Sevens Rugby 1883-1976

The first seven-a-side rugby tournament was held in Melrose, Scotland on April 28, 1883. Ned Haig, a playing member of the Melrose, Scotland rugby club, devised the concept sevens tournament to make money for his club. That part sounds familiar. A history of the Melrose Sevens may be found at Wikipedia: Melrose_Sevens History

Sevens remained local to Scotland and northernmost England until well after World War I.  Finally, sevens made it to London: on April 24, 1926, the first Middlesex Sevens was played. Whereas the aim of the Melrose club in 1883 had been to raise money for their club, the Middlesex committee's aim was to make their tournament a fun event, in order to end the rugby season in a cheerful social atmosphere. 
Middlesex would soon be able to boast of being the largest 7s' tournament in the world, selling out the 60,000 seat Twickenham stadium annually. Wikipedia's history of the Middlesex Sevens may be found here: Middlesex_Sevens History

First-Ever International Sevens Rugby, Scotland 1973

The first sevens' tournament to feature national teams was held in Scotland in 1973. Once again, as in 1883, the Scots were to lead a trend, although it was viewed as a curiosity at the time: the inside front cover of the program was an advertisement for Peter Scott Knitwear, featuring a man and woman in sweaters, looking amazed and accompanied by the caption: "International Seven-a-Sides. What next?"  See First International Sevens Tournament: Scotland 1973

The Start of Continuous Sevens: Hong Kong, 1976

But though Scotland, again, led the way in sevens, it took the Hong Kong Sevens to actually move sevens to become a world-wide popular sport. In Hong Kong in 1976, as at Melrose 93 years earlier, 7s were chosen for logistical reasons: it was a lot easier to bring in twelve 7s' teams than twelve 15s' teams. The scope was originally narrowed to Asian and Pacific nations, but it grew rapidly; the US first participated in 1981.

It is interesting to note that while most nations, including Australia and New Zealand, entered full national teams into the Hong Kong Sevens as early as the 1970s, it wasn't until 1993 that England, faced with the loss of an invitation to Hong Kong, became the last country to enter a full national side.

The history of the Hong Kong Sevens is summarized here: Hong_Kong_Sevens History

The program below lists 12 teams: Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong, Indoneisa, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga.  Only Australia and New Zealand did not have national teams, being represented by invitation sides Wallaroos and Cantabrians.

Program, 1976 HK 7s
1976 Hong Kong Program.jpg
Program for the first-ever Hong Kong Sevens (1976)

The US at Hong Kong 1981-85

With the invitation of the USA for the first time in 1981, US sevens was - with some exceptions - limited to Southern California and to a stretch of the East Coast, which made the process of selection nontrivial; a lot of the selection was necessarily based on determining how current 15s Eagles projected to sevens.  As the 80s progressed, an official All Star event - the ITT (Interterritorial Tournament) 7s began in 1985.  Players that stood out at this event began to be integrated into the team and a more formal selection process was instituted.

1981. Hong Kong Sevens (March 28-29, 1981)

1981 and earlier - HK Football Stadium
1981-1985 HK Government Stadium-1000w.jpg
Hong Kong Football Club: Home of the Hong Kong Sevens 1976 through 1981
Photo from The Hong Kong The Sevens: Celebrating Twenty Years by John Blondin

Eagles at Hong Kong 1981
    1981-03 Eagles at HK 7s-1200w.jpg
The First-Ever USA Eagles Sevens Squad: March 28-29, 1981

The US was first invited to the Hong Kong Sevens for 1981 and eagerly accepted.  This first-ever USA Sevens team was coached and managed by Eagle 15s coach Ray Cornbill and selected by the National Selection Committee, chaired by Keith Seaber.  The team trained in CA following the Monterey Tournament and also in Hong Kong, where the preparation included a joint session with Korea.

Bill Baldwin, Denver Highlanders
Steve Finkel, Scioto Valley
John Fowler, UCLA
Steve Gray (captain), OMBAC (Old Mission Beach Athletic Club)
Tim O'Brien,
Old Blues (CA)
Mike Purcell, BATS (Bay Area Touring Side)
Denis Shanagher, BATS
(Bay Area Touring Side)
Tommy Smith, UCLA
Art Ward, Old Blues

Here is a picture from the first 10 years of Hong Kong 7s book, referenced above.

Fowler and Finkel at LO 1981 HK 7s
1981-03 Eagle LO at HK7s-1200w.jpg
John Fowler goes up for lineout vs. Japan
Steve Finkel is #2

US Results at Hong Kong 1981 (W3 L3)

The write-up is excerpted from the April 20, 1981 Rugby Magazine. Click here for the article. 

US 10 Barbarians 20.  The Barbarians comprised English and Welsh internationals experienced in sevens play, and were the tournament favorites.  The Eagles started with good ball movement, including an American football pass, to take a 4-0 lead on a Mike Purcell try. Following that the Barbarians scored 4 unanswered tries until John Fowler closed out the scoring with a 40-y interception and try that Tommy Smith converted.

US 18 Sri Lanka 0.  Denis Shanagher scored the first try on a 60-y run. Bill Baldwin and Steve Gray scored the other 2 tries, and all 3 were converted.

US 0 Western Samoa 24. The nation currently known as Samoa is identical to the nation formerly known as Western Samoa.  The name was changed in July 1997.  The Samoans had continual possession in this game and scored up the middle due to defensive lapses.

US 24 [South] Korea 10. (North Korea doesn't play rugby so whenever Korea is mentioned in this history it is South Korea.)  Steve Finkel opened the scoring with a 75-y run in which he ran over 2 would-be tacklers. Mike Purcell was set up by teammates for 3 tries.  All 4 tries were converted by Smith.  

US 12 Papua New Guinea 10 (
Plate Quarterfinal).  John Fowler grabbed a lineout and scored a 50-y try. Mike Purcell stiff-armed a defender, ran down the sideline and scored in the center for a converted try.  Papua New Guinea had a nice oomeback, but both conversions failed and the US got the win.

US 14 Japan 18 (Plate Semifinal).  Per the press, one of the best games of the tournament.  Japan stormed out to an 18-0 half-time lead. The US came storming back, though.  Tim O'Brien scored the first try on a pass from Tommy Smith. Finkel made a long break and made a beautiful behind-the-back pass to Smith who scored in the corner. Steve Gray ran off a penalty play and scored under the posts. There was time left and the article tells us that the fans were going crazy about the Eagle comeback. The Eagles had what appeared to be two legitimate tries called back and the score remained 14-18.  Our reporter finished his article with "So it goes."

Not much was expected from the Eagles in their first appearance, but they exceeded expectations.  Ray Cornbill notes that "in the press, we were the surprise of the tournament for sure."

The Barbarians squeaked by Australia to win the tournament championship 12-10, and Tonga defeated Japan 22-18 for the Plate.

1981 was the last year the tournament took place in Hong Kong Football Stadium, capacity 2,750. Bigger things were in store.

1982. Hong Kong Sevens

Government Stadium early 80
Hong Kong Government Stadium: "the" Sevens were here from 1982 to 1992
Photo from The Hong Kong Sevens (first 10 years) by Kevin Sinclair
The current Hong Kong Stadium was built directly on this spot starting just after the 1992 Sevens

Eagles at Hong Kong 1982
1982-03 USA Eagles at HK.jpg
Eagles in Hong Kong March 27-28, 1982
Standing, L to R: Keith Seaber (manager), Gary Lambert, Dave Bateman, John Fowler, Denis Shanagher, Steve Finkel, Dennis Storer (coach)
Below: Tommy Smith, Mike Purcell, Steve Gray, Roy Helu

Management was represented by coach Dennis Storer and manager Keith Seaber and Dennis Storer.  The players were

Dave Bateman the Elder*, Old Blues (CA)
Steve Finkel, Scioto Valley
John Fowler,
Santa Monica
Steve Gray (captain), OMBAC (Old Mission Beach Athletic Club)
Roy Helu, Old Blues (CA)
Gary Lambert, White Plains
Mike Purcell, BATS (Bay Area Touring Side)
Denis Shanagher
, BATS (Bay Area Touring Side)
Tommy Smith, UCLA

* Two Dave Batemans have represented the US sevens team.  This Dave Bateman, from San Francisco, represented the US from 1982 through 1985.

US Results at Hong Kong 1982 (W3 L2)

The tournament moved this year from the Hong Kong Football Club (capacity 2,750) to Hong Kong Stadium (capacity 28,000).  The results are excerpted from the April 19, 1982 Rugby Magazine; whose article is shown here: the article may be found by clicking here.

US 40 Singapore 0.  The US opened the scoring in the 2nd minute when Denis Shanagher drew a defender and sprung Roy Helu for the try. Shanagher scored the second try and Mike Purcell made a 60-m run to score a third, and a 50-m run for a fourth. and Roy Helu converted the first 3.  In the second half, Shanagher, Gary Lambert, and John Fowler scored tries and Helu converted all 3.

US 4 Fiji 30.  The Eagles had all the play in the first couple of minutes but couldn't put it across the line; following a turnover Fiji scored; 0-6. Fiji scored a second try in the half, but the US got on the board with a nice set up Tommy Smith to Gary Lambert who scored  With the score 4-10 at halftime, Fiji took over and scored 4 tries in the second half.

US 30 Japan 6. Japan had knocked the US out of the Cup competition in 1981 but the US dominated this game. Fowler tapped down the opening kickoff to Finkel, to Gray, to Lambert who took it all the way for the try. The US missed several opportunitie in the next few minutes, but in the last couple of minutes of the half, Purcell and Fowler scored.  Smith converted all 3 first-half tries.

US 28 Malaysia 10.  This final pool match was played on Sunday morning and the US needed a win to get to the Cup. Rugby Magazine called it a "real US show." John Fowler made a nice fingertip catch of a Roy Helu pass for a nice score and the crowd exploded. Tommy Smith converted.  Dave Bateman and Steve Finkel scored two more unconverted tries in the first half. Mike Purcell, Helu and Finkel scored in the second half. Smith converted one try this half. After Malaysia scored to start the 2nd half, the US won a LO at their own 5-meter line. Fowler won the ball and got it to Purcell who scored a length of the field try. The final try was on a counter-attack of a Malaysia kick; Fowler scored the long try.

US 4 Scottish Borders 14 (Cup Quarterfinal).  Rugby reports that this was a very good match, with the crowd very much behind the Eagles.  There were a lot of good passing movements by both team, with the half time score 0-4 to the Borders. The Scots then scored an early 2nd half try but the US came back with an unconverted Steve Finkel try, but the Borders team scored the last try and the US lost 4-14. It was a tough way to go out, but the Eagles were deservedly appreciated and loudly applauded by the crowd.

Australia defeated the Scottish Borders in the Cup championship game, 18-14.

1983. Hong Kong Sevens

Eagles in HK 1983
1983-03 Eagles at HK.jpg

Eagles in Hong Kong March 26-27, 1983
Back: David Chambers (manager), Tim O'Brien, John Fowler, Steve Finkel, Denis Shanagher, Richard Prim,
Peter Parnell, team physician

Front: Dave Bateman, Mike Purcell, Willie Jefferson, Dick Cooke
Keith Seaber, not pictured, was the coach of this team.

Keith Seaber was the coach, David Chambers the manager, Dr. Peter Parnell the team physician, and the players were

Dave Bateman the Elder, Old Blues (CA)
Dick Cooke, Memphis Olde #7
Steve Finkel, Scioto Valley
John Fowler,
Santa Monica
Willie Jefferson, Santa Monica
Tim O'Brien,
Old Blues (CA)
Richard Prim, San Antonio STARS (South Texas Area Side)
Mike Purcell
, BATS (Bay Area Touring Side)
Denis Shanagher
, BATS (Bay Area Touring Side)

US Results (W2 L3)

The results are excerpted from the April 18, 1983 Rugby Magazineclick here for the article.

US 12 Bahrain 10.  The US would have lost to Bahrain, a team composed mostly of British and New Zealand expats, had it not been for a penalty try. Willie Jefferson scored the other try, and Dick Cooke converted both; the second conversion, of the penalty try, won the game.

US 6 [South] Korea 16. This game took place during the torrential rain that started during day 1. Based on the writeup, Korea, playing the rain, continually kicked through the US line, whereas the US attempted unsuccessfully to play wide open attacking rugby without success. Mike Purcell scored the US try converted by Steve Finkel.

US 42 Singapore 0. This was a track meet, as the US scored 7 tries in 14 minutes. John Fowler led with 3, Willie Jefferson had 2 and Denis Shanagher and Tim O'Brien and Dick Cooke one each. Cooke had 5 conversions.

US 0 New Zealand 26. By this game, the write-up tells us, the pitch was covered in ankle-deep mud and the Eagles injury situation caused them to have to play with center Denis Shanagher at prop. This was the first year that New Zealand would field a full national team in Hong Kong, and one of its players was future and current legendary coach Gordon Tietjens.

US v NZ in mud 83
1983-03 US NZ in mud at HKG.jpeg
US vs NZ in the mud
John Fowler looking up
On the left is current (2016) New Zealand Sevens Coach Gordon Tietjens

US 0 Scottish Borders 12 (Cup Quarterfinal).  Despite being 2-2 in pool play, the US made the Cup quarterfinal based on points.  Injuries continued to plague them (squad size was 9 at the time), and Steve Finkel summed up the game, "We just didn't have the horses. And those we had were out of position." And, in general, Scots are more used to playing in the rain/mud than Americans.

1984. Hong Kong Sevens

Eagle 7s in HK 1984
1984-0331 Eagle 7s in HK.jpg
Eagles in Hong Kong March 31-April 1, 1984
Standing, L to R: George Betzler (coach), John Fowler, Mark Deaton, Dave Priestas, Steve Gray, Bob Watkins
Kneeling, L to R: Dave Jenkinson, Dave Bateman, Denis Shanaghan, Gary Lambert, Blane Warhurst

George Betzler was the coach and Bob Watkins the manager. The players were

Dave Bateman the Elder, Old Blues (CA)
Mark Deaton, Old Blues (CA)
John Fowler, Cincinnati Wolfhounds
Steve Gray, U. of Miami

Dave Jenkinson, Oklahoma University
Gary Lambert, Life Chiropractic
Dave Priestas, Bethlehem Hooligans (PA)
Denis Shanagher (captain), BATS (Bay Area Touring Side)
Blane Warhurst, Old Blues (CA)

US Results (2-2)

The results are excerpted from the April 16, 1984 Rugby Magazine. Click here for the article.

US 18 Papua New Guinea 4. This was a tightly contested first half, ending at 4-4, the Eagles' try by Blane Warhurst. The second half was all US. Dave Priestas - my homie - scored the first try in his first Eagle match ever. John Fowler and Denis Shanagher also scored two tries, and Shanagher added a conversion.

US 10 Crawshay's Welsh 14 US. This was in the days when the UK nations couldn't bear to send sevens teams bearing the nation's name, so Wales was represented by the invitational team Crawshay's. Dave Jenkinson, like Priestas playing in his first-ever Eagles' match scored the first try, converted by Steve Gray and the US led 6-4 at halftime. In the second half the Welsh scored twice to take a 14-6 lead, and though the Eagles attacked fiercely in the 2nd half, they only produced a last second Gary Lambert try.

US 18 Tonga 0 (Plate Quarterfinal).  A win over Tonga is always a good result. Playing classic keep-away sevens, the US backed up to near its goal line before Gary Lambert broke the line for a 90-m try. Jenkinson scored the second try on another long run to make the half-time score 8-0. Dave Jenkinson followed with another long run, converted by Shanagher, and the final try was scored by Dave Bateman who kicked over the Tonga sweeper. He gathered it himself and scored.

Steve Gray holds off Tongan
1984 US Steve Gray vs Tonga.jpeg
Steve Gray holds off a Tongan defender

US 8 Japan 10 (Plate Semifinal). The write-up makes it clear that this was a game the Eagles should have won. They got an 8-0 lead, including a try described in detail in which all 7 players handled the ball. In the second half, however, Japan kept the ball away from the US and put kicks behind the US line, twice to score and later to put the ball deep into US territory, where they defended well.

Fiji overwhelmed New Zealand 26-0 in the tournament final.

1985. Hong Kong Sevens

Eagles at 1985 HK 7s
1985-0330 Eagles in HK-1200w.jpg
Eagles in Hong Kong March 30-31, 1985
Standing, L to R: Bob Jones (manager), Blane Warhurst, Denis Shanagher, Jake Burkhardt, Gary Lambert, Terrence Titus, Peter Parnell (team physician)
Kneeling, L to R: Dave Bateman, Charlie Wilkinson, Steve Gray, Willie Jefferson

Bob Jones was the manager.  I'm told Captain Steve Gray also served as team coach.  The players were

Dave Bateman the Elder, Old Blues
Jake Burkhardt, Cincinnati Wolfhounds
Steve Gray,
OMBAC (Old Mission Beach Athletic Club)
Willie Jefferson, Harlequins (London, England)
Gary Lambert, Life College
Terrence Titus, Life College
Denis Shanagher
, BATS (Bay Area Touring Side)
Blane Warhurst, Old Blues (CA)
Charlie Wilkinson, Duck Brothers (NOVA 15s)

Selection for this team was partly based on the two events that took place in San Diego February 15-18 1985.  Those events were a 4-day national selection camp for the US 15s team, and squashed in the middle, the first-ever ITT (AKA All-Star) Sevens held in San Diego on Sunday the 17th.  Some of the players in the sevens had also been invited to the 15s camp, and it was a very difficult weekend for them.  It wasn't a great solution for the sevens players who wanted to focus on the sevens, and as one of the coaches of the camp said, "although the sevens was inspirational, it used up valuable camp time and effort."  The weekend got national selectors and players to watch the sevens candidates, but it was not - fortunately - a template for future events, as it was difficult for those involved in both - players and selectors - to focus on one event.

US Results (2-2)

The results are excerpted from the April 15, 1985 Rugby Magazine. Click here to see the article.

The Eagles were crippled by injury before and during the tournament. From Rugby Magazine, April 15, 1985, the US "was forced to play much of the tournament without its fastest players.  David Jenkinson and Mike Purcell, two of the fastest players in the Eagle Camp, withdrew from the team prior to the tournament because of injuries.  Also, wing Willie Jefferson was limited to two games after aggravating a leg injury sustained in the Eagle Trials.  In addition player-coach Steve Gray suffered  broken hand in the match against Canada, ending his tournament availability."  This was in the days of 9-player squads, and the US had to borrow two players, one from Canada and one from Korea, as reserves in its final match.

US 28 Brunei 3. The US actually fell behind in this game as Brunei slotted a penalty to go ahead 3-0.  Willie Jefferson scored two first half tries to put the Eagles ahead 8-3, and the US took control in the second half with tries by Charlie Wilkinson, Denis Shanagher, Terrence Titus and Steve Gray plus two Gray conversions.

US 4 New Zealand 20.  The US's only score in this game was by Dave Bateman.

US 14 Canada 4 (Plate Quarterfinal). This was the US's best result of the tournament. Denis Shanagher and Dave Bateman scored in the first half, and Shanagher converted one for a 10-0 lead. Canada scored in the second half, but a limping Jefferson scored the 3rd try to seal the game midway through the second half and the US won won 14-4.

US 8 Bahrain 10 (Plate Semifinal). As satisfying as the Canada win was, so disappointing was the Plate SF loss to Bahrain.  Playing keep away, the US was backed up to its goal line leading to a Bahrain score. Lambert scored between the posts, but we missed a conversion leaving the score at 4-4. Terrence Titus scored in the second half but Bahrain tied the score with a try in the corner with no time left.  They made the very difficult conversion and a golden opportunity slipped away.

Australia were the 1985 Cup champions.

Only a Festival Game?

Sometimes I can be prescient. At this time, sevens was still regarded as an oddity, something to be played in warm weather, a day out with your friends.  But horrors! People (like me) that took it seriously were laughed at. I had coached sevens for nearly 10 years and had long ago fallen in love with the game, and I was offended every time I heard disparaging comments about its validity as a real sport.

The ITT 7s (Inter-territorial 7s) had begun in January 1985, and I was the coach of the old Eastern Rugby Union that had just won the 2nd ITTs in December 1985.  The four territorial coaches joined the national selection panel to discuss 1986 selections. To calm down the very enthusiastic, the Chairman of Selectors warned that sevens was after all merely a festival game.  That discussion prompted the following article, one in a series I wrote about Sevens (Ed Hagerty, editor of Rugby Magazine, chose me to write this series  because I was one of the "enthusiastic sevens guys" - and maybe because I was happy to write for free:)).

Time proved that I was in the right place at the right time. International sevens was about to expand. 

And a few months later - following the 1986 international sevens events - I was named National Sevens Coach.  - Emil

Only a festival game
1986-02 Only a Festival Game.jpg