It has been suggested recently that England, Scotland and Wales might combine permanently to form a Great Britain Sevens squad. It brings with it all sorts of fascinating imponderables.
As far as the Olympics are concerned, it is a done deal. Either a GB team is entered or none. The first squad of its kind, bound for Rio in 2016, consisted of English players plus Jasmine Joyce of Wales. They came fourth.
Since then, not even the contracted Red Roses have been able to hold their own against opposition from all over the world. Their current ranking is a paltry eighth, which must make the RFU wonder whether its funding is having the desired effect. Players have come and gone in bewildering profusion; there has been a change of head coach, and it’s not abundantly clear how effective a role Simon Amor had as the man overall in charge of the men’s and women’s programmes.
A Scotsman, Scott Forrest, was appointed the new head coach of the GB squad, aiming to gain a medal at Tokyo. He liaised with the English and Welsh coaches, Charlie Hayter and Ollie Phillips, before announcing a preliminary squad of 24 in February. Fifteen Englishwomen were included plus six Scots and three Welsh. Since then of course his carefully laid plans have gone to waste.
Some New Thinking
But people have used this downtime to look at possible scenarios for the future. Could and should the GB squad be kept together permanently, taking England’s place in the World Series? It makes a lot of sense from within the world of women’s Sevens.
One tiny problem is that there is no such thing as a GB Rugby Union. When the unions need to come together, that is mainly to select a Lions’ touring party, things are arranged ad hoc. Everything has to be done on an informal basis, between friends.
Next problem: where does that leave Northern Ireland? One of rugby’s greatest plusses is that the IRFU represent the whole island. Men and women from all four provinces can wear the green. But at the Olympics NI could not be considered as part of Ireland, a separate nation.
The men work to a different pattern. It was agreed that the team finishing highest in 2017-8 would represent GB at the Olympics. That was England. The British Olympic Association would have the final say over selection.
It’s hard to tell at this stage what the make-up of the GB women’s squad would look like. You might expect the professionals to hold sway, but frankly their results since 2016 have only rarely matched expectations. Forrest will have to cut his current prospects by half. Only twelve, plus a maximum of two reserves, will make the journey.
Scottish and Welsh players may well view selection to the party as career-changing. For too long they have been cannon-fodder in the Fifteens game In the abbreviated version they have the chance to really show their mettle.
Prospects for English players would be very different. They have enjoyed favoured status ever since contracts were awarded to the Sevens group. There was considerable disquiet when it was announced at the end of the 2017 World Cup that the Fifteens squad would be losing their contracts. The difference in treatment seemed bizarre. The RFU’s underlying policy over contracts may have to come in for a major rethink after Tokyo.
One fascinating feature about the squad of 24: all the Celtic players have been fully involved in the 6 Nations. Over recent years the English have known only Sevens. If and when we get to see them train and play together, we’ll have a better idea about the best approach to high-intensity Sevens. Should you play Sevens exclusively over a long period or can you convert short-term, bringing other skills to the format?