England 7s start their competitive season next week. The global travellers led by Ben Ryan will be a long way from home on the Gold Coast of Australia and that will only be the start of it. When they board their economy class flights to Hong Kong for a 4 day stop off before heading onto Oz it will be the first of 80000 miles that they will travel this coming season. For a number of them that are well over 6ft and 100kg that is not the most comfortable way to fly especially when an expectation to perform at the highest level of elite sport awaits them at the other end of the flight. This is the life that the 19 full-time 'centrally' contracted players of England 7s are embarking on this season. They will be abroad for around 130 days across the year with 80+ days of training at the Lensbury Club in Teddington on top. Anyone who questions the level of commitment and professionalism expected of international 7s players at the beginning of 12/13 has either had his head in the clouds for the past 5 years or not been following this particular England set-up.
England 7s start their competitive season next week. The global travellers led by Ben Ryan will be a long way from home on the Gold Coast of Australia and that will only be the start of it. When they board their economy class flights to Hong Kong for a 4 day stop off before heading onto Oz it will be the first of 80000 miles that they will travel this coming season. For a number of them that are well over 6ft and 100kg that is not the most comfortable way to fly especially when an expectation to perform at the highest level of elite sport awaits them at the other end of the flight.
This is the life that the 19 full-time 'centrally' contracted players of England 7s are embarking on this season. They will be abroad for around 130 days across the year with 80+ days of training at the Lensbury Club in Teddington on top. Anyone who questions the level of commitment and professionalism expected of international 7s players at the beginning of 12/13 has either had his head in the clouds for the past 5 years or not been following this particular England set-up.
Development or Performance
Ryan has a programme that is envied the world over. Having expanded both his playing squad and management team this past summer he has never had such resources available to him. Whilst Sevens has rapidly grown in stature in the UK and further afield in the past 5 years across all forms of the game, the development of the England 7s squad has not been without a number of road blocks along the way. Ryan inherited an England programme that though it had seen success in patches (Hong Kong winners 4 years out of 5 in 02-06), it was very much a development tool within England rugby and one that had little support from Premiership clubs and/or the RFU Performance department. He refers to his original role as England coach as being one of 'a glorified invitational team coach' as he would be calling club Directors of Rugby and basically asking "who's available?" and sometimes this would mean meeting up with players at Heathrow Terminal 3 without any training time or preparation. That's not to say some quality players were not involved in his programme, players such as Ben Youngs came through and moved on to 15s as this was the pathway in place at the time.
Ryan took the reigns of England 7s in 2007 and his first visit to 'cake-tin' in Wellington bought him to very stark realisation when he awoke on game-day in Wellington and saw the most succesful 7s team, New Zealand and their coach Gordon Tietjens, getting together for a morning run. Ryan followed the Kwis that morning, somewhat covertly and witnessed Tietjens and his staff adminster a savage hill sprints sessions for 30 minutes on one of the many hills in Wellington that blew Ryan away. He reflected that "our boys at that time would not have even finished the session, let alone be able to play later that day". It must be pointed out that New Zealand went on to unsually lose their home tournament after a big 31.0 semi final loss to Fiji with players such as Messam and Dagg starring for the home side. This could, of course, be put down to the hill sprints that morning but it was the stark contrast between England and the best in the world that was so obvious to the man hiding in the bushes that morning. England had a long path to follow to be where they needed to be on the international circuit.
England 7s' darkest day came in 2008 at the world famous Adelaide oval where for the first time in the history of the World Series, England did not win a game throughout the weekend. This included losses to Fiji, Kenya, France, Papua New Guinea and the USA. It has been a story that has been told a number of times in 7s circles and though Ryan does not remember it with any affection it has become a weekend that has proved to be the birth of the England 7s programme that we recognise today. Everything that could go wrong went wrong that weekend in Australia with sin-bins, citings, injuries, extra-time, a sorry England could not catch a break but it also signified that a change needed to be made. Upon coming back to London, Ryan met with Director of Rugby Rob Andrew and explained that the England 7s programme in it's current state; begging for players and at odds with clubs throughout the country, was not sustainable. The problem was more deep rooted as Andrew went on to advise that due to the standing of the 7s programme, the RFU were considering pulling the side out of the World Series at the end of that season
The decision was never taken for England to be taken out of the World Series due to a call from the IRB explaining that if that took place it would severely damage the application for 7s to become an Olympic sport. The RFU recognised that for England to be competitive further budget was required for Ryan, together with a shift in terminology as the programme focussed on performance and not development.
With this budget the first real tranche of 'Sevens players' was introduced into the squad from Championship clubs including players such as Chris Cracknell, James Rodwell and Josh Draniui. Players that shared their time between England and their club as part of the agreement for player release and remuneration put in place by the RFU and Premier Rugby in 2008/9.
England 7s under the guidance of Ryan have long been seen as industry leaders in sport science. Much of this has been assumed to be part of the blessing that is being part of the wealthiest union in the world but Ryan explains this is not the case, 'we contacted UK Sport Head of Research and Innovation Dr Scott Drawer and explained that we would be guinnea pigs for them'. Ryan said they made just two stipulations in that they would not be made to look silly and that they could share the results with UK Sport. This has meant that the 7s programme has been seen to be working with GPS progammes long before their 15s colleagues. There is an NDA in place between UK Sport and the 7s programme so that further details what the players have been exposed to, but Ryan did say "many of the things that were used at the London Olympics we were able trial and use the statistics from".
It's science with style though with this years new playing kit(Pink&White) features a specially-built pocket for the latest GPS technology - an innovation that skipper Rob Vickerman believes can give his side the edge over their rivals.
"In terms of analysis, that could have a massive impact on how we train," insisted Vickerman. "I know a lot of people are changing the way they train around the way they are playing games. So the GPS information is already making a big difference."
This season sees England taking on a full-time analyst, which seems basic for those who have followed Premiership rugby or football over the years but this is a huge step forward for the 7s programme. Having someone dedicated to the 7s squad has already seen a number of the players noticing the differences. Vickerman saying "We have been able to breakdown last season as a whole, " he explained, "and on average Fiji were getting four points more than us per tournament. Straight away we have recognised that if we want to be the top team in the Series then we have got to make sure that we are consistently making finals"
So with England having support from UK Sport Research and Innovation, an expanded management team including video analysts and full-time coaches and the 2nd biggest full-time squad in the world it would seem that finally England 7s is in a position that Ryan and the RFU can be happy with the programme. The nature of elite sport is that it is constantly evolving and it is recognised that England need to be constantly improving and developing themselves. Furthermore, it is understood that Paul Treu and his South Africa programme have even more full-time athletes with a budget that is rumoured to be £1m larger than that of England and Ryan.
The Olympic Effect
Whenever we speak of 7s there is currently an elephant in the room. It will be the case in the training camps of all 15 'core' sides heading into the World Series and in fact further afield than that with those sides looking to get promoted into the series. That elephant is the 2016 Olympics and what it means to the game as a whole and how it will directly affect each indvidual programme. For the home nations the Olympics bring with them the biggest challenge and that is how to put together a Team GB and guarantee that they will be competitive whilst also attempting to not damage the individual Union's programmes and their players. This is a challenge that is not faced by any of the other 7s Nations and due the competitive edge between the Nations it's hardly one that Nations such as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are particularly sympathetic towards.
The first step towards Rio, regardless of how the GB squad is selected is qualification, something that any of the home nations is able to do for the GB Olympic team. The process will take place in the 2014/15 season with the top 4 sides from the World Series that season automatically qualifying for the Olympics in 2016, something that Ryan considers to be of huge importance. If any of the England, Scotland or Wales finish in the Top 4 in that season, Team GB are on their way to Rio. Not making the top 4 would see England head to the European qualifier and leave their participation in Rio to chance. "Europe has more 'core' nations in the World Series than any other continent including Spain, Portugal, Wales, Scotland, France and winning that qualification will take some luck, as anything can happen in a one-off tournament" Ryan explained.
So England's goal is to finish in the Top 4 in 2 seasons time? England 7s are looking towards much bigger things. Ryan realises that the eyes from outside of the 7s world will be on his programme over the the coming years and there will be alot of questions regarding which players are best suited to win an olympic medal for Great Britain. Many of the rugby fans and writers in the UK will call for well-known faces from 15s game to be on the field under the assumption that these are the best rugby players and with that rugby 7s players in the UK.
The first chance England have to allay this comes with every season. The sides they will be competing against are the sides that they play month after month on the World Series so becoming World No 1 in winning the World Series and doing so consistently goes someway to ensuring that questions won't be asked.
"We have to take care of our business, if we are unable to beat the other teams consistently then of course people are going to ask questions on what can be done to improve the squad for Team GB".
The addition of players from the 15s game is something that has been widely debated since we saw players such as Josh Lewsey and Lote Tuquri took part in past Commonwealth games. The thought goes that surely the best players in the world choose to play 15s and it follows that they would be the best at rugby 7s. Ryan firmly disagrees.
“From the England point of view, it is great to hear of people in the senior side say ‘I am quite interested in sevens’, said Ryan, whose squad arrived in Australia today ahead of the start of their World Series campaign in the Gold Coast on Oct 13. “But my suggestion to them would be, ‘Well, get involved then because you can’t just think you are suddenly going to poke your toe in six months out.’
“I find it insulting to the players we have got, like Mat Turner or Tom Mitchell, for someone to say, ‘We will slip in.’ These guys, given an opportunity, would do some damage in the Premiership, if they took that approach."
“If you picked a sevens team from the current England XV, this lot would beat them because of their grounding, training and because they are a team. That takes time.”
The players who are currently in the squad don't have to think about the politics they just know that they have a chance to play in an Olympics and with that comes an unparralled level of excitement for all involved in the squad. "It only really hit home when we were at training session down in Teddington and the time trial was on," Vickerman explained. "We were joking all morning saying that any cyclist going past was Bradley Wiggins and then he went past on a practice lap. We then went round the corner after training and saw what must have been about five or six thousand people lining the streets."
"It was one of those moments when you turn and look at each other and go, 'in four years time that could be us'. Granted it will not be a home Olympics but the excitement and buzz around that one moment is enough to make sure you train hard for the next few years."
With such an enticing prospect, a more difficult decision awaits for the next generation of players who are set to be forced to choose their career path - 15s or 7s. "Gone are the days where you can do both," insists Vickerman, "and the decision for the younger guys needs to be made sooner rather than later."
England 7s has alot of water behind it, gone are the days of it being a development programme for players not wanted by their clubs. Here are the days of it falling into line with the rest of the world in that it's professionalism is unquestioned, guided by a man who is not only a coach but is someone that has developed the entire programme from what he called 'rock bottom'. Ryan is eloquent, intelligent and yes he has a hint of a mad scientist about him (probably the teacher in him). He has surrounded himself with the best in the world and has a goal to become exactly that. He does not speak about the possibility of him being coach of the Team GB side as right now all he cares about is England and their quest to become number one.
Of course England are not the only side developing at quite a rate with full-time squads in France, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Samoa to rival his squad. The challenge has never been so great to reach the goal. When listening to Ryan speak about where England have come from though, you wouldn't doubt that they can get to where they aspire, and to some extent we expect. I'm sure he knows it but pressure is on and it starts in Australia next week.
UR7s N.B - *Who do England face first this season? The man Ryan inherited the England programme from...Mike Friday and Kenya - TASTY!