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7 things to know about Rugby Sevens at the Summer Olympics

Rugby Sevens busted out onto the Olympics scene in 2016. Here's a rundown on how it's played and who to watch for this summer.
/ Source: TODAY

Rugby is back in the Olympics in 2021, and if you can't tell the difference between a scrum and a sin bin, we're here to help.

Before Rugby Sevens debuted at the 2016 Rio Games, rugby hadn't been part of any Olympics since 1924. After Rio, this quick-paced version skyrocketed in popularity, gaining millions of new fans worldwide. Although the coronavirus pandemic sidelined U.S. players from competing against opposing teams for more than a year, a shortened version of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series began May 15, giving teams a chance to fit in some competitive prep ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Rugby Sevens, the faster, more streamlined cousin of traditional rugby, will be played in Tokyo from July 26 through July 31. (Men's matches will happen during the first three days, followed by women's.) Here's some knowledge to drop that will impress your friends while you're watching.

1. Rugby Sevens has fewer players.

Traditional rugby, sometimes called rugby union or just "union," is played with 15 players per side. But in Sevens there are (can you guess?) only 7. They still play on a full-size pitch, and each team member, who has only 6 others assisting him or her, needs to have plenty of stamina to cover the generously sized field.

2. Rugby Sevens matches are short and usually played as multi-day tournaments.

In Sevens, halves are just seven minutes long with a two-minute halftime break, compared to the usual 40 minute halves with a 15-minute halftime. And it makes sense that when yellow cards are pulled, sevens players spend less time in the sin bin (penalty box): Two minutes, as opposed to 10 minutes in 15-a-side games.

3. In Sevens, the pace is faster and scores tend to be higher.

It's a matter of personal preference whether a fan prefers the action-packed vibe of Sevens or the elements of history and strategy that dominate Fifteens. But one thing is certain: Sevens is certainly a natural pick for the Olympics broadcast, with its scheduled commercial breaks and high number of matches played in a short time.

4. The scrums have fewer players and may move more quickly.

During Sevens scrummages, only three players from each side lock together and try to move the ball toward their teammates, as opposed to eight members in traditional rugby. In Sevens, scrums tend to be more about just restarting play, while in Fifteens, they can be lengthy, elaborate battles.

5. The aim of the game remains the same.

Players still must score points as tries (the ball gets held down after crossing the opponent's goal line) or penalties. But there are some key differences, for example, in Sevens, drop-kicks replace place-kicks for all conversion attempts, and must happen within 40 seconds (instead of one minute). And Sevens teams who score must kick off to the opposing team, while the opposite is true in Fifteens. The official Olympics site has a helpful overview of the current Sevens rules.

6. Both the U.S. men's and women's teams have been working hard since their disappointments in Rio.

Neither is a frontrunner for a 2020 gold medal, but due to the unpredictable nature of the game, both may have a chance for a podium finish. Players to watch include Carlin Isles on the men's side, who is often called one of the world's fastest players and was named by Sports Illustrated as one of 2021's 50 fittest athletes. New York Giants safety Nate Ebner, who in 2016 was the first NFL player to compete in the Olympics, was also granted a temporary release by the football franchise to try for a spot on the team.

Image: A Day with the US Rugby 7s
U.S. player Carlin Isles is often called one of the world's fastest players.Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

On the women's side, there's star player Naya Tapper, who has been the all-time leading try scorer for the USA Women's Eagles and has won a slew of accolades, including gold at the 2019 Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque and silver at the 2019 Pan American Games. Alev Kelter, who was on the Rio 2016 Olympics roster, is another high scorer on the women's team who came up through hockey and soccer, and has also had some stunning successes in Rugby Fifteens.

7. Costumes are a thing.

Rugby Sevens tournaments have festive atmospheres, and fans tend to dress elaborately for games. (Head-to-toe silver body paint, Star Wars outfits and group ensembles like a banana bunch are just a few that have popped up in places like London and Hong Kong.) So don't just watch the action on the field during the Olympic broadcast—keep an eye on those wide-panning crowd shots.

Stay tuned for the first Rugby Sevens game that will be played at the Tokyo Olympics on July 26, 2021.