Well, then. That’s that. A glorious fortnight that ignited national pride and sporting appreciation has come and gone in the screech of a vintage Spice Girls single. Fortunately, from Mo Farah to Usain Bolt and far beyond, London 2012 has left a glittering trail of priceless memories. There is also something truly tantalising for rugby fans to fantasise about for the next four years – the inclusion of sevens at Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Games in 2016.
Saracens stars Chris Ashton and Alex Goode have caught the bug already, admitting their interest in representing Great Britain. Although the job will almost certainly go to England guru Ben Ryan, Gavin Hastings has thrown his name into the hat as a potential coach. Enticing stuff. However, those debates are for another day, a long way down the line. For some nations though, the race to Rio’s rugby carnival is a marathon that begins right now.
Ahead of the most significant step on their fledgling Olympic adventure, Barbados is one such side inspired to get to the Games. Less than two weeks before the North American leg of the Rugby World Cup Sevens qualifying tournament in Ottawa, their captain Leon Driscoll explained the ambition.
“It is a long way off, but you cannot help but be driven by what has gone on in London,” said Driscoll, a graduate of the Sale Sharks Academy who won recognition for England at Under 16 level. “I would be lying if I said that being an Olympian wasn’t motivation, but it would be dangerous to have that at the forefront of our minds.
“We must perform out at these qualifiers first of all and, without giving too much away, we are quietly confident. We will probably go in as underdogs, but that is fine. If anything, that should allow us to go about our business without any other added pressure.
“We are having a five-day camp prior to the competition, so by then all our game-plans will hopefully have gelled nicely. Who knows what could happen after that.”
Over the weekend of August 26-27th, Barbados will slug it out in a tough group that features Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and the Cayman Islands – the top three ranked Caribbean teams. Proceed past that, and the heavyweights – USA and Canada – will likely lie in wait.
While only the finalists secure berths at next June’s World Cup in Moscow, the third-placed nation will be invited to take part in the Hong Kong leg of the HSBC World Sevens. All things considered, stakes are extremely high. As Portugal, Kenya and Russia will testify, even a temporary place on the circuit is a perfect launch pad from which to add another name to the ever-growing rugby map.
Currently playing for Wimbledon in London One, Driscoll has organised a young squad’s summer schedule alongside former West Indies head coach Joe Whipple. A number of English-based players, including Reading’s Jordan Gomez and Marcus Harewood of Sutton Coldfield, have merged with talented Barbadian natives to form a group that could conceivably develop together over the next four-year cycle.
So far, the signs are promising. Three weeks ago at a tournament in Halifax, the side breezed through their group and the knockout stages, only to be edged out 24-19 by a strong Caldy outfit in the final when injuries took their toll. Driscoll is under no illusions that his charges will need to find another gear out in Canada, but also knows that success could spread the sport to its most exotic location yet.
“Rugby in Barbados is a bit of a non-entity at the moment, but it is definitely growing,” he continues. “Last month, there was an Olympic Association day on the island and our guys out there put on a bit of a display for a group of officials. It seemed to go quite well.
“On a personal level, I was surprised at how proud I felt to play in the first place. To be made captain on top of that was very special. That really touched me and I was really excited by it all. Having a few Barbadians alongside us ensures we won’t forget our heritage – they are all between 19 and 21 years old and offer a great deal, both on and off the pitch.
“Of course, we want to be successful in terms of results, but if we can build the game in our country so that future generations can enjoy it, I will consider that a great success.”
Certainly, if the progress of Barbados’ current crop can eventually give way to the Test matches in the Lesser Antilles, indulgent fans around the world will consider their accomplishment a great success, too.
By Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix)