A day in the company of the England Sevens teams

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 cafĂ©) 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.

mat turnerThe 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.

sevensA 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

6 thoughts on “A day in the company of the England Sevens teams

  1. They won’t improve until they learn to tackle – that’s the biggest difference between England and the top 7’s teams. They prob have the biggest budget, best gym training, best analysis – but all that is no good if you have no instincts. The best 7’s players are ones who read the game and just play – Ben Gollings should be brought in as coach seeing as he was one of the best of all time. Look how much Mike Friday has improved Kenya – get him back as coach as Ryan is useless!

  2. Tom, you obviously have something against Ben or the England 7s team.
    Has Kenya beaten England this year? I’d agree its not been up to the high standards of last few years but they remain the only European team to ever win a World Series tournament and did so again in New Zealand this year beating NZ along the way. Cant remember how long ago NZ lost their first game in a tournament like they did against England – must be years if at all? Looking at their points for and against it doesn’t look like they are useless at tackling – what you basing this on pal? Why do you think they have the biggest budget? They do look pretty professional whenever I’ve seen them at tournaments – is that what you mean? Know one of the players pretty well and he’s certainly not paid a big salary but then don’t know if sevens players are generally? Do you? He came from a prem club and played age group stuff etc and says the two 7s coaches, Ben Ryan and Russell Earnshaw are easily the best coaches he’s ever had. You been coached by them or had much contact with them or maybe they didn’t select you for something?! I’m excited about going with my kids to London leg soon and supporting the team – good luck to them and hope they get more of the squad fit for it!

    1. Alex P – I’ve been pretty frustrated with the England 7s men’s set up for a few seasons now. Tom’s comments are overly incendiary and I don’t agree that Ryan is useless but what he’s saying about the principles of tackling and 7’s “instinct” ring true to me too.
      Where Ryan has excelled is player management/access/central contracting and that leads me to believe he’s an excellent manager but I don’t think he’s a great talent spotter or coach.

      1. Hi Spike. good comments – hopefully like me you are hoping the England lads finish strong! When you look at the world series table it does look like the first 2-3 tournaments really hammered their points and gave them their worst possible start with injuries. Tom talked about Kenya but England have scored more series points than them and most of the teams after first couple of tournaments – don’t know if they have got everyone back fit that got injured in those two tournaments – you know? Im too old to have ever been coached by Ben Ryan so cant comment personally but lad I know says his coaching is the best he has had – though i guess he could be talking about the whole thing not necessarily the on field stuff?
        What do you mean by ‘instincts?” They have finished 3rd in world series last two years which is higher position in world than the XV’s side have been for a good few years – thats pretty good in my book! Looking forward to London 7s – leave the kids to dress up in safari gear though!

        1. The sevens instincts i’m referring to would include knowing when to try and make a break, when to offload/when to take the tackle, when to kick, attacking the blindside, picking of weak defenders, spotting incorrect defensive alignment and exploiting it…etc…which is basically all open play that can’t be drilled or coached. England seem to be very strong at restarts, scrums, line-outs, penalties, rucking, strength, speed and fitness but, Mat Turner aside, they seem to lack the understanding of the game under pressure that NZ, Fiji, SA, Samoa, Wales, Scotland (to name a few) all have.

          In my opinion, that is the difference between the England of 2013 and the England of 1993 (the greatest sevens event ever witnessed) or the England of 2000-2006 when Gollings, Amor, Greening, Paul et al., were in their heyday.

          Through their professionalism and financial dedication to 7’s, England have maintained their position towards the top of the rankings but i can’t help thinking that given the same support and playing numbers, other coaches would be winning the world series or coming close every year.

          1. This set me off on a nostalgic trip back to 1993 – if you can cope with the rubbish quality of video, have a look through this series that someone has uploaded from the World Cup final:

            It’s worth sitting through until number 28, when Harriman dedicates the win to “Queen and country”!

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