England’s Sevens Problems
For some years England’s Sevens programme has existed on a wing and a prayer.
In the latest HSBC Series tournament in Toulouse the squad finished twelfth out of twelve.
As we close to within two months of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (29-31 July), Charlie Hayter has announced yet more new names to compete at Twickenham in the London HSBC World Series. But these three inter-squad games look like last-minute add-ons to an exclusively men’s tournament.
Behind these setbacks lie problems the RFU has not yet resolved.
The Olympics Dilemma
First, none of England, Scotland and Wales can compete at the Olympic Games; only Team GB will do. Jasmine Joyce pointed to the unhappy consequences that ruling can have for the individual.
No decision has yet been announced about establishing a permanent GB squad. Team GB’s twitter account closed down last December.
So the confusion continues. The three nations will compete separately at Birmingham where different regulations apply.
To show the complexities, this is how World Rugby explains the distribution of points rankings: ‘Great Britain participated in the opening two rounds of the Series in Dubai, as part of the standing agreement to play the full calendar year 2021, before reverting to compete as national unions for the remainder of the 2022 Series, with England participating in the women’s series. England women received 50% of the Series rankings points earned by Great Britain in rounds one and two in Dubai.’
Two Separate Squads?
Second, the RFU has not yet announced a decision to separate the Sevens and Fifteens squads permanently, though Simon Middleton did say that any player invited into his squad would be not be able to double up at 7s.
But some Red Roses selected for the autumn internationals and the Six Nations have appeared in the Sevens squad, for example Heather Cowell and now Lagi Tuima. Does that mean they are no longer part of the 15s enterprise or was this simply a quid pro quo arrangement?
A ‘core group’ of ten contracted 7s players was introduced in December. They are: Isla Norman Bell, Abbie Brown, Abi Burton, Grace Crompton, Megan Jones, Emma Uren, Alicia Maude, Jodie Ounsley, Celia Quansah and Amy Wilson Hardy. That means that two or three players must be added for every tournament, hardly a recipe for togetherness.
Of the thirteen players who flew to the Gold Coast for the 2018 Commonwealth Games just three are still playing 7s, Abbie Brown, Amy Wilson Hardy and Megan Jones.
Silence is Golden
Third, ever since the Rio Olympics where GB finished fourth, there has been a lack of information about 7s policy. When new contracts were announced for the 15s squad in January 2020, the first three went to 7s players, Emily Scarratt, Mo Hunt and Jess Breach. I suggested at the time that the most significant of the three was Breach.
Here was a young player renouncing the chance of competing for an Olympic medal. All three decisions were significant, helping to establish the Red Roses’ position at the top of the world tree.
Of course no word was sought or given to explain their decisions.
Other leading figures have followed the same path: Vicky Fleetwood, Lydia Thompson, Emily Scott, Alex Matthews, Helena Rowland and Holly Aitchison. The make-up of the 7s squad has altered from tournament to tournament, almost from month to month. Why this extraordinary exodus?
Back in January at Malaga the live stream co-commentator Philippa Tuttiett kept reminding us that the players were on the 20th day of their programme. Their 20th. Not 120th or 220th. Why?
The squad: Maisy Allen, Ellie Boatman, Brown, Abi Burton, Alicia Maude, Isla Norman Bell, Jade Ounsley, Jade Shekels, Georgina Tasker, Lauren Torley, Emma Uren, Jessica Weaver and Wilson Hardy. Allen and Weaver debuted; Shekels and Torley made their second appearance.
For the umpteenth time we were informed that the team was building. James Rodwell said: ‘It’s all about learning and growing on and off the field. It’s about building for the future.’ And: ‘We are starting on a new journey…’
The question is why he cannot speak of a natural development or continuous progress. The England programme seems to exist in a state of constant flux.
Do you introduce new players for a major tournament only two months away?
The indecision about priorities was highlighted by the return of players like Heather Cowell and Merryn Doidge to their clubs to take part in the Premier 15s semi-finals. So the newly assembled squad lined up in Toulouse against seasoned professional with the inevitable results.
The turnover in staff has not kept pace with the players, but has shown less stability than is healthy. Simon Amor took overall charge of men’s and women’s 7s, but soon moved into Eddie Jones’ set-up as attack coach. He is now head of Japan 7s. Charlie Hayter was named England Women’s sevens head coach in 2019. then was promoted to become head of sevens and women’s performance, a strangely asymmetrical appointment. This year James Rodwell, the distinguished Olympic 7s player, was appointed as women’s head coach.
These manoeuvrings stand in stark contrast to the stability of the 15’s set-up. It’s ironic that Simon Middleton was originally in charge of both formats.
These disparities are sadly mirrored in the business of long-term strategy. Part of the success of the 15s squad lies in the clear pathway set out before the players. It stands in stark contrast to the way the three ‘inter-squad’ matches have been stitched into the London HSBC Sevens.
This is the latest squad to be chosen. Congratulations to them:
Maisy Allen (Exeter Chiefs)
Ellie Boatman (England 7s, Wasps) *
Abbie Brown (England 7s, Loughborough Lightning) *
Abi Burton (England 7s, Wasps)
Heather Cowell (England 7s, Harlequins) *
Grace Crompton (England 7s, Bristol Bears)
Emma Hardy (Loughborough Lightning) *
Amy Wilson Hardy (England 7s, Wasps)
Jenny Hesketh (Bristol Bears)
Vicky Laflin (Worcester Warriors)
Ella Lovibond (Bristol Bears) *
Alicia Maude (England 7s, Gloucester-Hartpury) *
Isla Norman-Bell (England 7s) *
Jodie Ounsley (England 7s, Sale Sharks)
Nikita Prothero (Loughborough Lightning)
Courtney Pursglove (British Army)
Jade Shekells (Worcester Warriors)
Georgina Tasker (Loughborough Lightning)
Holly Thorpe (DMP Durham Sharks)
Lauren Torley (DMP Durham Sharks)
Lagi Tuima (Harlequins)
Jess Weaver (Loughborough Lightning)
It’s high time the RFU, the SRU, the WRU and GB Sevens Ltd came to some agreement about future arrangements. The current position does no-one any favours, the organisers, the coaching staff and above all the players.
We can argue that the ongoing success of the Red Roses 15s programme has sacrificed the well-being of English 7s.