Some two years before the Tokyo Olympics begin, the youngest squad at the Kitakyushu Sevens spring the biggest surprise of the tournament: Canada overtake England in the final only after the allotted 14 minutes are up. (5-7)
How do we begin to explain this remarkable achievement?
The thinking that underlies the RFU’s approach to contracts and the respective merits of Sevens and Fifteens deserves close attention. For a decade now the principle has been ‘focus on the next major event’. Since Rugby Sevens entered the Rio Olympics in 2016 that has meant switching between 15s (the World Cup) and 7s.
At Rio Team GB came fourth, the most painful position of all. The squad included some outstanding exponents of the abbreviated game, but when it came to the final two fixtures, they couldn’t quite provide the extra ingredient needed to win a coveted medal.
This was the Olympic squad:
Claire Allan, Abbie Brown, Heather Fisher, Natasha Hunt, Jasmine Joyce, Katy McLean, Alice Richardson, Emily Scarratt, Emily Scott, Danielle Waterman, Joanne Watmore and Amy Wilson Hardy.
Travelling reserves: Megan Jones and Kay Wilson
These names present a quite formidable parade of rugby-playing skills.
From then on, the changing make-up of the English 7s squad provokes wonderment. Post-Olympics, these were the players given new 7s contracts on 6 September 2017:
Abbie Brown, Alex Matthews, Amy Wilson Hardy, Claire Allan, Chantelle Miell, Deborah Fleming, Emily Scarratt, Emily Scott, Heather Fisher, Holly Aitchison, Katie Mason, Lydia Thompson, Megan Jones, Millie Wood, Natasha Hunt, Sarah McKenna and Vicky Fleetwood
– another talented squad of 17, full of promise.
The team that won bronze at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast (4 to 15 April 2018) was very similar to this original selection. Holly Aitchison was injured; Vicky Fleetwood was travelling reserve.
This was a major achievement. They beat Canada in the bronze medal play-off by 5 points.
But seen in a world perspective it reinforced the sense that British/English players were highly unlikely to improve on the Rio results. At Gold Coast the major opposition was Canada, New Zealand and the hosts. To them we could add all the nations that have beaten England in the past few years such as Ireland, Poland, France, Fiji and Russia.
Then on 29 August the following year a new squad was announced:
Lizzie Adam*, Holly Aitchison, Claire Allan, Jess Breach, Abbie Brown (C), Abi Burton*, Heather Fisher, Deborah Fleming, Emma Hardy*, Natasha Hunt, Megan Jones, Ellie Kildunne*, Alex Matthews, Celia Quansah*, Helena Rowland*, Emily Scarratt, Emma Uren*
Kildunne was the one player to switch over from the 15s programme, just as Breach had done earlier.
It is the age of the newcomers that strikes the eye: an average of barely 20. Of course they are highly talented prospects, but was it fair on them to be vaulted into the stratosphere of an Olympic programme with barely two years to prepare?
By the same stroke the following players left the squad:
Amy Wilson Hardy, Olivia Jones, Katie Mason, Sarah McKenna, Chantelle Miell, Emily Scott, Kelly Smith, Lydia Thompson, Vicky Fleetwood and Millie Wood.
(The two italicised names show how frequently the squad was being adjusted. They had joined since the previous September)
Question: why did they leave? No public explanation has been offered. Yet they included some of the most talented footballers the nation possesses. Either they were found wanting or they decided to quit the scene. When we consider their past and future achievements, the former reason appears laughable. If the latter is the case, what were their reasons?
One of the drawbacks of the professional 7s player is, strangely, the lack of a full-time employment. What to do between HSBC tournaments and any invitational events to be found around the world? There are few, if any support programmes below the elite level.
There was one such at Elche in Spain in October 2017, a friendly, low-key affair. A handy squad of eleven flew over and enjoyed themselves. They won the tournament at a canter, indeed Deborah Fleming scored the first try after precisely nine seconds. The RFU website failed to report events.
Prospects looked good when England beat the USA and Australia In Dubai in November 2018.
Then the thunderclap: just before the complete list of full-time contracts for 15s players was finally announced (3 January 2019) came the news that three star squad members were switching away from 7s: Jess Breach, Mo Hunt and Emily Scarratt.
Their move helped to ensure that the Red Roses would regain the Grand Slam and – uniquely – with maximum points. But it seemed to weaken the prospects for the Sevens project even further.
Several other players have been drafted into 7s squads of recent times, for example: Amy Atkinson, Shauna Bennett, Samantha Graham, Garnet Mackinder and Sophie Tandy.
Sammy Graham came into the squad for the Kazan tournament in 2018. She was surprised that a raft of new players were being drafted in (she was one) with only a couple of training sessions together. She found that really strange. Although this was her debut, she was the third oldest in the squad and the only player with Tyrrells Premier 15s experience.
The explanation was: the emphasis of the tournament was focused firmly on improvement rather than the results. And this was less than two years before the Tokyo Olympics.
Why the repeated adjustments? Injuries are an obvious answer, but they hardly begin to explain the mass switches that have taken place. Was the management constantly changing its mind? Of course, the public is not entitled to know the reasons. Or is it?
Then came the splendid results in Japan. This was thesquad that performed so admirably:
Lizzie Adam, Holly Aitchison, Abbie Brown (C), Abi Burton, Emma Hardy, Megan Jones,
Ellie Kildunne, Alex Matthews, Celia Quansah, Helena Rowland, Emma Uren and
Amy Wilson Hardy (who had no doubt been invited back to replace the departed Breach)
They overcame heavy odds to produce the performance of the tournament. Indeed both Holly Aitchison and Alex Matthews were selected to join the Dream Team. Astonishingly, the other members of this elite group represent France, Canada and the USA; Australasia nowhere to be seen!
This gives a great boost to GB/England hopes. A silver medal for the youngest squad on show marks an upturn to renew our spirits. And in the final they had a 5-0 lead snatched away only after the scheduled 14 minutes were complete. Was it significant that the player to cause the downfall was a real veteran, Ghislaine Landry? This was her 30th appearance.
This is England’s first success in the HSBC series since they beat New Zealand in theLangford final in 2016. Again we must ask, has the management alighted on a winning formation too late to expect them to be able to expect a medal at the Tokyo Olympics?