The Sevens set-up in the UK presents distinct difficulties
The news of an agreement with the National Lottery to secure the future of Great Britain’s men’s and women’s 7s squads will come as a great relief.
It was also one of the very few options left open to them. The teams will compete in the HSBC World Series tournaments leading up to the Olympics and beyond. In the World Series England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales can operate as separate units, each under the aegis of its union.
But when it comes to the Olympics other rules apply. One of the greatest virtues of the IRFU is that it includes all four provinces including Ulster. But the six counties are part of the United Kingdom, so that leaves us with England, Scotland and Wales to form Team GB.
In the men’s case it was agreed that the team finishing highest in world rankings would represent GB, that is England. Not so in the women’s version. The policy was choose the best. The squad that flew to the Rio Olympics in 2016 for the inaugural showing of Sevens rugby contained eleven English player plus Jasmine Joyce, the Welsh flyer.
How does the women’s version look?
One of the most grievous effects of the current pandemic was its wrecking of carefully laid plans for the female GB squad. Scott Forrest, long-term head coach of the Scottish squad, was appointed to take charge of the Olympic squad.
He got as far as selecting 24 players from the three nations:
Holly Aitchison (England), Keira Bevan (Wales), Abbie Brown (England), Abi Burton (England), Heather Fisher (England), Deborah Fleming (England), Megan Gaffney (Scotland), Sydney Gregson (England), Hannah Jones (Wales), Meg Jones (England), Jasmine Joyce (Wales), Ellie Kildunne (England), Rhona Lloyd (Scotland), Alex Matthews (England), Helen Nelson (Scotland), Jodie Ounsley (England), Celia Quansah (England), Chloe Rollie (Scotland), Helena Rowland (England), Hannah Smith (Scotland), Lisa Thomson (Scotland), Emma Uren (England), Beth Wilcock (England) and Amy Wilson Hardy (England)
– that is 15 English players, 6 Scots and 3 Welsh.
Then came the double blow of the pandemic and the RFU’s decision to cancel its players’ professional contracts.
Everything has been on hold since those distant days early in the year.
Now comes the news that the three unions have agreed to pool their resources for both competitions. This was made possible by the award of funding from the National Lottery. That welcome gesture could only take place once those combined forces were agreed to.
There had been proposals for such an adjustment some time ago, but there were strong objections to the move: the SRU and WRU would be concerned at the likely preponderance of English players in any combined squad; and the Olympics come along only every four years.
The major Sevens tournaments are annual, and players are proud to wear the colours of their own individual nation.
But money talks. Not even the RFU has sufficient funds to support its players.
The new plans see the combined side taking part in any HSBC tournaments that can be fitted in before the Olympics. But first Forrest must somehow decide on his final squad. Twenty-four players have to be reduced to twelve, with perhaps a couple of reserves.
That presents big problems for the players. The English have been taking part in the Allianz Premier 15s league. So have Bevan, Hannah Jones, Joyce, Lloyd, Nelson and Rollie. Many of them appeared with distinction in the Six Nations too.
Will Forrest call his wider squad straight back for final selection sessions? Once more, the rules of the pandemic will determine his decision. At elite club level only the Prem 15s are taking place at present, so not everyone is up to match fitness.
Can we imagine all the squad who have appeared there suddenly upping sticks and switching back to Sevens? In all probability the clubs understood that they would do so. Wasps would lose five players in mid-stream, Loughborough and Sarries four each.
It is likely that a large proportion of the squad will again be English. But their results over the last few seasons have been far from ensuring a ratio to match the 2016 squad, 11:1. They rank no higher than sixth.
Much will depend on the presence of a full testing programme. That will be an extra burden on the funding.
And once Forrest has made his final choices, would the discarded players return to Fifteens? One of the major drawbacks to the Sevens scene is the lack of any alternative to the elite programme. Either you are playing in the HSBC or you are sitting at home twiddling your thumbs. So the odds are that those players would return hotfoot to their clubs, to be welcomed with open arms.
A new management set-up has been announced: Charlie Hayter, head coach of the England women’s programme, to be in overall charge of the men’s and women’s programmes, while acting as an assistant to both groups; Forrest to oversee the women. James Rodwell, the immensely experienced 7s star, will help both teams out as well.
The Reasons why
The public may never know the rationale behind the RFU’s thinking when it cancelled the 7s players’ contracts. It may have decided to give that format of the game a low priority – on a level with the many development offers and staff it sacked – or it may have suspected that it would find another funding source.
One element not mentioned in their statement is Sport England. But Sport England gets two thirds of its funding from the National Lottery. So my theory back in September that they were looking for a fairy godmother (http://4theloveofsport.co.uk/2020/09/01/funding-rugby/ ) holds some water. Only it wasn’t World Rugby (which announced emergency funding for nations competing in the Tokyo Sevens), but a source much nearer home.