In a game dominated by the European and Southern Hemisphere divide, as well as 15-a-side tournaments such as the World Cup and Six Nations championship, it is perhaps surprising that one of the most talked about names in the world of rugby union over the last six months has been a Sevens player hailing from Massillon, Ohio.
A former sprinter and American Football player at Ashland University, Carlin Isles has taken the sport of rugby union, or more specifically the 7-a-side variety, by storm. He burst onto the scene, scoring a try just a minute into his debut against New Zealand at the Gold Coast Sevens, and has since been dubbed by many as the ‘fastest man in rugby’. This is a title Isles certainly warrants, with the American posting a personal best over the 100m of 10.13 seconds during his athletic career. A time, coincidentally, which would have seen him make the semi-finals of the 2012 London Olympics.
Despite the continued growth of Sevens, not least so in Isles’ home nation, and its introduction to the Olympics in 2016, the pinnacle of the game still remains the 15-a-side format, and inevitable questions have been raised over whether or not Isles can make an impact at this level too.
Isles has admitted himself that ‘15s is on my radar and it’s definitely something I’m going to pursue’, but the reports linking him with a number of European teams are somewhat premature. He undoubtedly has huge potential within the sport, especially when you consider the fact that he had not even picked up a rugby ball this time last year. Isles has faced a steep learning curve and taken dramatic strides towards conquering it.
Patience should be exhibited by those expecting Isles to make the transition to the 15-a-side game immediately, as there is no need to try and accelerate his development, which is already moving along at a characteristically Isles-like pace, and could indeed damage his future prospects if corners are cut. The Sevens field could prove to be the perfect training ground to help Isles develop his physical and mental skills ahead of any potential move to the expanded format of the game. After all, experience on the Sevens field early in their careers certainly didn’t hamper the likes of Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen.
Some have called out Isles for his lack of size, and have said that this could be the biggest hurdle he faces in furthering his rugby union career. Of course Isles would have to ‘bulk up’ somewhat, if only to help him through the rigours of a full season where he would have to tackle, and be tackled by, guys much larger than he currently plays against on the Sevens circuit. True enough, but let’s not forget some other ‘undersized’ players such as Shane Williams and Jason Robinson, both of whom excelled, or the burgeoning career of young Christian Wade.
Providing he does one day make the move, it’s hard to look beyond the expansive, fast-flowing style of the Southern Hemisphere when considering potential homes for Isles, but Northern Hemisphere clubs such as Gloucester, London Wasps, Harlequins and Leinster certainly wouldn’t be bad fits either.
There’s no doubting that Isles faces a big challenge if he does make the crossover. Offensively, his pace will be his key weapon, and that could help the transition, but defensively will be where he really needs to put in the graft, both physically, and in his mental understanding of the game.
That being said, everything you hear about Isles screams class, from his tremendous work ethic to his great attitude. The history of rugby union is littered with failed converts from rugby league, but coming from Sevens, in theory, could be an easier transition, and if anyone can make a success of this transition, it could well be Isles.
Ultimately, a player with the physical gifts of Isles, coupled with his determination and desire to succeed, do not come round very often, and if managed correctly, expect Isles to make a similar impact in the 15-a-side game as he has done on the sevens circuit.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)