The initial excitement of being invited to Twickenham for the ‘Sevens Lab’ soon gave way to apprehension when presented with the schedule upon arrival at HQ. The half-hour ‘Strength and conditioning’ section in the Twickenham gym immediately struck fear into my heart, having not visited the inside of such an establishment (other than the café) for the best part of five years.
In reality it wasn’t that bad. This was probably more to do with the fact that we barely scratched the surface of what the players actually do than any heightened fitness levels of my own, but it’s nice to pretend for a while isn’t it? My legs aren’t even that stiff today, which I’m sure means I’m super fit and not that I wasn’t trying that hard.
The drills included waggling two giant ropes around (that’s the technical term), the dreaded watt-bike, boxing and jumping up onto mats piled as high as you could manage. We did one 30 second rep of each of the eight exercises before moving on – Mat Turner (pictured right), my accompanying player and drill sergeant, informed me they would usually do eight reps of thirty seconds on and thirty seconds off. Eight!
We were also given an insight into the crazy amounts of analysis that goes on. The technology is baffling, all colourful screens and complicated grids – it is tough to imagine without actually seeing it. Each team (men and women) also has their own performance analyst. They have recently implemented a sleep-monitoring scheme, which is, I am told, pretty cutting-edge. It allows the physios to analyse the players’ sleep patterns, in order to see how much of the time they spend in bed is actually spent sleeping. They can then use that to better assess the risk of injury to a player the next day – according to the research, players who have slept less than their bodies need (and everyone is different, and requires different amounts) could be more susceptible to injury. It is all quite confusing, but is obviously very much part of the future of sport, as several big-name teams from across the world have picked up on the technique since the RFU started using it.
A pitch session followed, in which we warmed up with a few Ben Ryan-led drills (including the cone game, a fantastic teamwork/communication based exercise) and then took to the Twickenham turf for some game time (touch only of course, much to the relief of the 7s boys as I saw the fear in their eyes lining up opposite me). I haven’t played any sevens since my school days, and although that wasn’t so long ago I’d still forgotten just how knackering it is – and this is without any tackles/rucks/scrums. These boys and girls are serious athletes. To compete at the top level with such a vast amount of ground to cover takes some phenomenal fitness – so kudos the the conditioning coaches, as well.
Tom Powell, who has been part of the squad for three seasons now, switched from the longer format of the game four years ago and hasn’t looked back since. He thinks the future of sevens is bright. “Sevens has become its own entity; its own sporting business” he says. “People are starting to have to choose at a younger age whether they want to do fifteens or sevens and stick with that route. Obviously the prospect of an Olympic medal is huge motivation in that.”
The Olympics certainly represents the giant carrot on the end of the stick for anyone thinking of taking the sevens route at the moment, and it is pivotal time for sevens as a sport. With its ascension to Rio 2016, there is real scope for it to grow and attract more players – we have already seen a couple of fifteens players switch from Premiership clubs this season in the hope of competing for an Olympic medal.
It is not a decision to be taken lightly, however. As fit as professional sportsmen are, these guys are on another level, and when Powell tells me of the manic line-up they have over the next few years it is easy to see why they have to be. “For the next two and half years, the seasons just merge into one. The World Sevens Series runs from October until May. They’ve now put in the European Series, which runs in June, July and August. Next year there’s a Commonwealth Games which will be in August, and this year there’s a World Cup in July. Then in 2015 we’ll have Olympic qualification.” It is a punishing schedule, and one for which the coaches and conditioning experts will have to plan carefully.
Being a smaller team, there is a greater sense of camaraderie amongst the players than you would perhaps expect normally. That much is obvious just spending a morning with them. There are 19 or 20 of them in the wider squad, but only 12 travel to each pair of tournaments. “When you’re away for three weeks at a time, obviously it’s essential that the twelve of you get on,” says Powell. “We end up with a lot of good friends within the team – players and coaches.”
As close-knit as they may be, it has not been a vintage year for the England team. They sit in tenth in the rankings, a full 74 points behind leaders New Zealand. Still, they have struggled with injuries (a playing squad of 12 for two tournaments seems remarkably thin) and there are a lot of new faces in the set-up. From what I saw in a morning’s runabout, there certainly look to be some exciting players coming through – but then up against us regular Joes, as much as we might fancy ourselves, they were never going to look bad were they?
All joking aside, it is an exciting time for the sport and anyone who has been to a sevens event will tell you what a great, carnaval-like day out it is. From a rugby-lover’s point of view, let’s hope it continues to grow.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43