For two sides in particular, next weekend’s IRB Sevens World Series curtain raiser in Dubai will mark an extra special occasion. Yes South Africa will be kicking off the defence of their IRB Series title and there will be a first return to Dubai since their amazing Rugby World Cup Sevens triumph for Wales which may well take most of the headlines.
For two sides in particular, next weekend’s IRB Sevens World Series curtain raiser in Dubai will mark an extra special occasion.
Yes South Africa will be kicking off the defence of their IRB Series title and there will be a first return to Dubai since their amazing Rugby World Cup Sevens triumph for Wales which may well take most of the headlines.
But, amongst this week’s squad announcements and bookings of last minute flights for the 40th anniversary of the Dubai Sevens, the British Amateur Rugby League Association (BARLA) have had a slightly different run-in to two of the other tournaments running concurrently alongside the main event.
The official body for amateur rugby league accepted invitations for their Great Britain Lions to compete in the International Overseas tournament, and their Bulldogs to compete in the Vets 10s, and despite some rule changes to get used to, an opportunity to play in one of the favourite legs on the IRB circuit has everyone involved chomping at the bit to begin.
“The coaches are really looking forward to it, as are the players. To be involved in an event with that kudos is a great honour and they will all do their best – if that means winning then tournament then so be it,” said Media Manager Steve Manning.
“Like any tour the team will all meet lifelong friends and it will be extra special to join the two codes together and that’s what the lads are looking forward to most. There is no division.”
Rugby league success in Sevens
An invitation for the International Overseas tournament actually came last year but reluctantly BARLA had to turn it down because it was too late to arrange sponsorship and to get a squad together.
However a subsequent invitation this year was accepted and they will record their very own milestone by becoming the first international Rugby League side to ever play at the Dubai Sevens.
In fact the only other League side to have played in the competition were St.Helens in 2004 where they reached the final of the International Invitational event before being beaten 33-19 by the Kentz Drifters – a team of Pacific Islanders.
Just as the Super League outfit were then, BARLA GB Lions head coach John Fieldhouse will be hoping their meticulous training means his side will be in the best shape to emulate this performance at the new 'The Sevens' venue.
“Obviously it is a completely different concept for our players, but what we bring is pace and athleticism and it is nice to have a different challenge as rugby players,” said Fieldhouse.
“We have been working on the different rules and we will continue to do so up until the tournament begins. The guys have been putting in the extra yard to ensure they can fulfil their potential.
“We have the added dimension of athleticism, lightning pace and being lighter on our feet so will hopefully be suited to the game. I am excited about how this young team will fare.”
Competitive coach sets high standards
Manning may be slightly more grounded, suggesting that the set-pieces may take some getting used to, but these high standards are what you get from Fieldhouse - a competitive former Great Britain rugby league star who was once named 'Man of the Series' against New Zealand in 1985.
He has been there, done it, worn the boots and bought the t-shirt, so has all the right attributes to lead a successful BARLA side in Dubai.
“The competiveness does start with myself,” admitted Fieldhouse.
“But the lads all know that you don’t enter a tournament if you don’t want to win and I don’t settle for second best.”
This attitude has seen preparations even more thorough than normal and there was already one eye on this tournament when the GB Lions headed to the South Pacific for tests against Samoa, Fiji and Tonga in the summer, where Fieldhouse even created his very own fitness programme for the players.
He has also called upon the services of former Scotland, St.Helens and Leeds Rhinos star, Wayne McDonald who now resides in Dubai, to help with the switch and getting acclimatised.
“I am of the mindset that you can learn everyday from anyone and we will take this forward. It will be great to be part of the razzmatazz that goes with the tournament but hopefully we can justify our invitation and fulfil our potential – that would make it all the more special,” added Fieldhouse.
Nothing to lose
No one can forget, either, that star-studded Wigan side that stormed away with the Middlesex Sevens by beating London Wasps 38-15 in 1996. Not only did they become the first rugby league side to play on the hallow turf, they exceeded expectations by winning the coveted trophy in front of 61,000 people.
Of course a squad which included several eventual converts helped, with the likes of Martin Offiah, Scott Quinnell, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Billy Whizz Jason Robinson and future British and Irish Lion coach Shaun Edwards in their ranks.
It would not be bizarre then to see BARLA doing well and writing their own piece of history in Dubai – especially if confidence is anything to go by and with carrots such as turning pro possibly available for anyone performing well for BARLA there could be many players dazzling the crowds.
“The rules may cause a few problems but nothing is insurmountable and we have all been taking it taking it seriously from the moment we found out. They are being very professional and will be in the best physical condition they can be,” said Fieldhouse.
“Lee Gudor, the national conference player of the year, who plays in the Blue Ribbon league and his half back partner Carl Puckering will perform fireworks if they can gel.
“James Craven at full back has a great turn of pace but then all the players have pace to burn. They do have to get ball first but if they do get it in hand we have some exciting players on show.”
In a way the BARLA boys have nothing to lose. Come unstuck against teams who play Sevens and union week in week out and no one will think any less of a side who have had to learn new rules and techniques specifically. But go there and win and we can expect a new Dubai fan’s favourite to be crowned.
Let us not forget the other squad either – the BARLA Bulldogs - made up of over 35-year-olds who are still competing in rugby league.
The side will be coached by Mick Fishwick and the 10s format may suit his players better with rugby league having Nines tournaments around the country including the Middlesex Nines. The competitiveness that remains in these players may just give them another edge too.
“The over 35s have been asking what else they can do to improve and this shows they still have the capability and drive to perform at a high level,” added Manning who unfortunately won’t be heading out to Dubai.
“Some of them still play in competitive leagues and they say it is never over until is over. If we can continue to be invited it is something else for our players to aim for.”
As for whether we will see more Jason Robinson’s converting to Rugby Union now Sevens is an Olympic sport, Fieldhouse believes that an opportunity for an Olympic medal may result in more crossing codes.
“I think you may do – at some point a lot of Rugby League players who are not fulfilling their potential could cross codes. There are less gates being opened for Rugby League players and there is confusion with different rules for different age grades. Not a lot of those junior players get the opportunity. If Sevens opens the door for them then why not.”
The competition starts for BARLA GB Lions on Day one with matches against Wooden Spoon Blues and Wyvern Harlequins before a meeting against Moscow Region on Day two. The Bulldogs will meet Swansea Uni Old Boys, Moscow Lads and the Bone Steelers, who include Scotttish legends such as Gregor Townsend, in the pool matches.