The appointment of a new head coach is typically a time of huge upheaval for any sports team – training regimes are changed, focusses shift and coaches are replaced. The first season can often be a time of transition, and that is where the England Sevens squad have found themselves this year after new coach Simon Amor was appointed just a month before the start of this World Series back in September.
Dan Norton has been around the England Sevens set-up for five years now, making his debut in 2009. A stalwart of the national team, he admits it was tough at first.
“It was a little bit difficult at the start, coming back from pre-season and hearing the news [that Amor had replaced former coach Ben Ryan], and taking a few weeks for everything to fall into place,” says Norton, who holds the English record for number of tries scored in one season. “Before Christmas it was like rolling with what we already had – trying to change a few small tweaks, trying to get some new ideas in place and strip things back.”
A strong start saw them come third at Gold Coast, before inconsistency crept in with finishes ranging from fourth to ninth in their next four tournaments.
However, the last two legs, in Tokyo and Hong Kong, have seen them finish third and second respectively, including their first win over New Zealand since February last year. Norton says this recent upturn in form is no coincidence.
“In the last block of tournaments – Tokyo and Hong Kong – we’ve hit where we want to be playing. The time we’ve had together with Simon is now coming to fruition; we’re showing our identity as a squad.
“Hong Kong’s been our best tournament this year, so hopefully that means Glasgow will be even better, and so on and so on.”
The sevens game continues to grow, both on and off the pitch. This year’s event at Twickenham has sold out on the Saturday in advance for the first time ever, while several of the world’s biggest stars, including names like James O’Connor, Israel Folau and Sonny Bill Williams, have expressed their desire to transition to the shorter format of the game.
Why all the interest? The game’s ascension to the Olympics, of course. Rio 2016 is now firmly on the horizon. As someone that has been involved in the sport for a while now, Norton would be forgiven for feeling a touch protective of his game from these players who think they can simply waltz in for the Olympics. No such worries though, apparently.
“It’s nice that the sport itself is having a lot of interest from people looking in; it adds to the profile of the sport,” he says rather magnanimously. “From our point of view as a team all we can worry about is playing as best we can, and having the best core of players to put forward for the GB team. That means winning as an England team and doing as well as we can individually.”
He raises a good point – it is easy to forget that it is a Great Britain team that will be entered into the Olympics, not simply an England one. The issue caused all sorts of controversy for the football team at the last Olympics, and it is difficult to see that not happening again.
England sit fourth in the World Series standings with 104 points, with Wales and Scotland way off that sort of pace, down in 10th and 12th with 57 and 45 respectively. With that in mind, you’d imagine if the squad was picked today, the majority would come from the England team – but is that fair for a group that is supposed to represent Great Britain?
To consider the bureaucracy and red tape is enough to give anyone a headache, which is perhaps why Norton admits he hasn’t really given it much thought, and is preferring to focus on what’s going on on the pitch.
“I think it’s still being decided – there are a few questions that are still up for debate, but as I said all we can do as a team is play well and hopefully the powers that be will take it from there.”
For now, that means focussing on the last two tournaments of the season, in Glasgow and London. And while the squad needs to to keep their momentum going in Scotland this weekend, there’s no doubt that the home leg of the World Series is the one that incites the most excitement in the players.
“Having family and friends being able to come and watch, and being close to them during the matches when they’re in the stand, is a lot better – it gives that feel of home, which gives us an extra driver.
“They’re all amazing because they’re all so unique, but having the opportunity to play in front of a packed home stadium, seeing people in the top tier dancing, screaming and shouting every time we come out – it’s pretty surreal.”
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
The Marriott London Sevens will take place at Twickenham Stadium on the 10 & 11th May. To see the series and tournament winner crowned on family day Sunday, please visit: www.rfu.com/londonsevens