Can Carlin Isles make it in the 15-a-side format?

carlin isles
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)

23 thoughts on “Can Carlin Isles make it in the 15-a-side format?

  1. I’m more simple than I thought my intial reaction was ‘I’ve never heard of a nation called The Carlin Isles’, what a doughnut!

  2. No. He is too old to learn the game, and play it at the highest level. It is too technical.

    You can see that even in Sevens, with all of that extra space, the better opposition make plans to shut him down, or to stop the ball getting to him. There is no question that the same would happen in 15-a-side.

    Dan Norton is a very good example. He played rugby from a very young age, but really struggled to break into the Gloucester and Bristol teams despite his speed and experience.

  3. Yeah just like Tim visser didn’t start playing till he was a bit older, his career has dive-bombed since then…

    Rugby is for everyone, all ages, shapes and sizes. Experience just comes with time.

    1. James, this is nothing at all like Tim Visser. Tim Visser played in Holland as a kid, and came to school in England on a rugby scholarship.

      Rugby is for everyone indeed. But international rugby is not.

  4. Hadn’t seen any 7s this season and wasn’t one of the 2.8 million viewers of his youtube clip. Can’t believe he was playing international 7s only 12 weeks after taking the sport up. I was expecting to see some long striding straight line runner, not some super agile athlete with sensational feet.

    I hope he stays a 7s player for now though, let him fulfil his ambition of becoming an Olympian. Also by the time we get to Rio there will definitely be more countries playing a high standard of 7s than there are at 15s, the game can only kick on from there. I would have thought if he becomes a true 7s superstar that through sponsorship and endorsements he could do sufficiently well for himself that he doesn’t need to chase the money in the 15 man game, so if he chooses to give 15s a crack it’s because of a desire to play the game.

    As to where he could play 15s …. he would be absolute lightning chasing kicks for Sarries on the rubber crumb!

    1. agree he would be lightning on the rubber.

      but there is no way that he won’t be offered the big bucks in France. After all, Ngwenya burned Habana… and ended up with a contract at Biarritz off the back of it. I am sure we will see something similar.

      the one thing that makes me think we wont see Isles in XV’s (especially in Britain or Ireland) is that once the weather goes and he starts playing in mud (cos not everyone has rubber crumb) he will become a completely different player…

      he should either stick to 7’s or play Super 15 (and not in NZ). This kid is built for hard grounds and dry weather.

      1. You’ve taken me too literally, I was just imagining the irony of a lethal attacking weapon going to Sarries for his speed to be used without the ball.

        Though to be fair to Sarries they do seem to have banished Mr Hyde for now and are playing some great stuff.

        Agree with your point though, I hope we never see him on the crash ball in a 6-3 arm wrestle in an inch of mud, that’s not the game for him.

  5. Not sure this indicates whether he’d do well at top level 15s… But that is serious gas!

    Would be good to see if how he got on at Championship or equivalent.

  6. I’ve been impressed with him in Sevens, but it really is a completely separate sport. Looking at England as an example I can count on one hand who has had a decent XVs international career from a 7s base. Ben Foden, Matthew Tait, Lawrence Dallaglio… Next one I think of is Tom Varndell and it’s hardly a stirling international career.

    Ngwenya was a little lucky really. He came from VIIs to international XV for USA. It did take a somewhat spectactular try, involving a number of other good players it should be pointed out, for him to get noticed from that point and get him a contract. Isles is quick, which is important for VIIs, but there’s a huge difference between the space you get to run in VIIs and XVs. Most clubs will be aware of this and would prefer to see him do something at international level before considering him for XVs.

    1. Wookie, Haskell played a bit of England 7’s, and so did wade (a player everyone wants playing for England in XV’s). I believe Tom Rees and Magnus Lund also played England 7’s.

      Also to look at other nations too. Guys like Todd Clever have played both XV’s and VII’s quite effectively. Chauncy O’Toole does it for Canada too.

      Also Lomu player 7’s. as did Gio Aplon and Cory Jane.

      I think the year that Dallaglio and co won the 7’s World Cup they played an Aussie team with the liked of Nick Farr-Jones (not too sure on that one), Michael Lynagh and David Campese.

      I don’t follow 7’s too much anymore, but I don’t think they are as different as you say they are. There are a number of transferable skills and pretty a decent player should understand the game enough to adapt pretty easily.

      The biggest issue though (as you and many have said) for isles will be his lack of experience and understanding.

      1. Also worth noting what the England women are doing, putting all their best players from 15s into 7s for the world cup, I’m sure with an eye on Rio in mind.

        In general though I do think 7s has developed as a game, from something played by 15s players for skills and fitness into a game that requires a different kind of athlete to 15s (higher speed, better speed endurance, better recovery abilities and much higher levels of aerobic fitness). The games are diverging so I think we’ll see fewer and fewer examples of people being able to excel in both without a considerable amount of transition time to adapt to the differing physiological demands. If we get another freak like Lomu then he’ll be an exception rather than the rule.

        1. Obviously there are lots of transferable skills and no doubt there ares some playing 15s that could switch straight across and do a good job in 7s. However I also agree that the sports are moving apart and to win things in 7s requires specialist 7s players. One of the reasons Fiji have had so much success is because all their players are 7s specialists. In the past England chopped and changed the squad so regularly they couldn’t get consistency as 7s was seen as a development tool.

          Interesting that the NZRFU have said anyone who wants to play in Rio has to take a year out from 15s to dedicate to sevens. I saw an interview with Liam Messam who said This is to get both the correct skills/tactical awareness and physical requirements. Apparently a certain Sonny Bill has also expressed an interest. Imgine his ability to get the hands free in the tackle with all that space…

  7. Guys, I am not sure that the point is whether a player can switch from 7’s to XV with success, but whether this particular player can. As noted above I don’t think he can because he has too much to learn, being a very late convert to rugby.

    All of the other names noted above, including Ngwenye, played rugby as kids, so had a grounding in the game and were not converting from 7s to XV with no experience.

    Like others above, I hope that he stays in 7s because he can easily get lost in XVs

  8. 1 name for all you naysayers that believe it’s impossible to pick up rugby later in life (22+) and become a great player – Dan Lyle. He grew up playing a American Football and moved to rugby at age 23. He ended up as one of the best, if not the best 8man in the game for several years. Great athletes can pick up sports and adapt to them much more so than a good or average athlete can.

    1. Dan Lyle is a good example, and possibly an exception. He will have been aided by moving from a physical ball game, rather than simply from being a track athlete.

        1. He is a good example of someone making a successful switch from Athletics. He is also a good example of someone who had a Rugby background, as unlike Carlin Isles he played rugby as a child/teenager before he chose to concentrate on Athletics.

          Even with this background, I recall that he had plenty of critics at the time who criticised him as being “just an athlete” who struggled with the game. Unfairly, in my opinion, but it did/does show how people can be pigeon-holed.

    2. A very good point there Aaron – Lyle was a superb player. I had no idea he came to it so (relatively) late in life

    3. Categorising Dan Lyle as “one of the best, if not the best 8man in the game for several years” just reinforces my view that English supporters are both myopic and deluded.

      Sure, he was a good club number 8, he did a stirling job leading the Eagles and no doubt his 125 caps at Bath were cheered on by the supporters there, but he wasn’t even close to being the best number 8 in England, let alone Europe and certainly not the world.

      I would suggest Taine Randall and Imanol Harinordoquy, bracketing Lyle’s career, were eminently his superior in all facets of the game.

  9. Hey guys, appreciate all the comments!
    Just to clarify, Carlin played American Football at college, and in the US college football is played at a ridiculously high standard. University sport in this country just doesn’t compare! We’ve lost touch with the idea of ‘student athletes’ unfortunately…and our university sport doesn’t have billion dollar TV deals, but that’s a whole other issue.
    So, I don’t think he is unused to physicality, but granted, he will need to bulk up somewhat if he does make the transition.

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