Life on the Sevens circuit: an insiders view from Ben Ryan
The rugby sevens series is approaching its finale, with New Zealand currently well ahead on points. The game is continually evolving, with a greater divide evident between sevens rugby and fifteens rugby.
On Sunday night, Talksport Radio in Britain carried out a short interview with England rugby sevens coach Ben Ryan and one of his players Rob Vickerman.
The duo not only spoke about the challenges facing England, but looked at the game more broadly.
Indeed, the interview revealed a few interesting observations about life on the sevens circuit.
They noted how pre-season preparation differed from the 15-a-side code for England players. The sevens circuit involves large amounts of travel, with events in places like Hong Kong, Dubai and Las Vegas, as well as more traditional rugby countries.
Usually the legs are paired, but this season saw a group of three for the first time which stretched the resources of even the top sides. Super-rugby players obviously have greater logistical challenges than sides playing the fifteen man game in the North.
Players cover two-and-a-half to three kilometres over a 14-minute game (finals are 20 minutes), which usually translates into 20 kilometres over a two-day tournament.
It’s becoming harder for an English player to consider having a 15-a-side premiership career and a sevens career. This is partly because players in England are contracted to their clubs, rather than the national union and clubs are rarely willing to release players for the sevens circuit.
There is also increasingly a gulf between the skills of sevens specialists and regular rugby players.
Ben Ryan mentioned that New Zealand included Hosea Gear in their initial circuit squad, three months after he’d been involved with the World Cup win for the All Blacks.
They rarely had a chance to start him, however, because he couldn’t get tuned back into the sevens mindset quickly enough.
Gear is a top sevens exponent, so the transition is clearly becoming a bigger challenge.
England currently have 12 full-time sevens players, after having none two years ago.
If they can end a season having given caps to only 20 players, then they have fared reasonably well with injuries. Next year, there should be 16 full-timers, which will give even more scope for coaching.
In the past the coach might only meet the players for the first time at the airport.
Clubs sometimes called players back from tournaments before they played a game, which was very disruptive.
The players weren’t fit and the squad was not settled, but this is less the case now.
The ideal is a full 20-man squad, to cut all reliance on outside resources.
Ryan says his players are now on an Olympic training schedule. If the squad performs, winning on the circuit and at the Commonwealth Games, then he thinks it’s unlikely that any current England international fifteens players will be able to force their way into the sevens team.
The 2015 World Cup will finish in October, which is less than a year before the Rio Olympics.
If England are not faring well, however, then he might open the door to change the mix.
Ryan knows top players who are interested, and some younger premiership players have written sevens release clauses into their contracts in the hope of maintaining some involvement.
New Zealand will almost certainly be bringing in top players from the fifteens. They did so at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, drafting Zac Guildford, Hosea Gear, Adam Thomson and Ben Smith.
Central contracts make it easier for New Zealand to do so.
England’s large player base does provide some compensation.
Ryan says he’s signing players “who you’d struggle to find on Google”.
They are generally people who’ve slipped through the gaps in the system for various reasons; they’ve either had injuries at the wrong time, or were the “wrong selection for the wrong age group”.
22-year-old Tom Mitchell made a successful sevens debut this year but has only ever played university-level rugby.
An England sevens contract is currently worth about half of what a player might get at a premiership club.
If additional money comes into this version of the game then more people might be inclined to specialise.
As it is, England speedster Dan Norton has turned down premiership offers to concentrate on sevens.
His defence isn’t top notch and the fifteens game was interrupting his development in the short code.
Ryan said players like Norton are valuable on the circuit because they have “repeatability”. Some fast players need a lot of recovery time before they can get up to top speed again.
The short game needs people who can still turn on the gas moments later and that’s an attribute which is of greater importance in sevens that fifteens.
More second-tier rugby nations are putting resources into sevens, with an eye on the Olympics.
Ryan says America have started to take it seriously, and should start getting a lot better.
Vickerman noted that even the Dutch women’s team now has a full squad of full-timers. The Olympics has changed the environment immensely.
Yet crowds outside rugby strongholds aren’t always aware of the finer points of the game. Vickerman said Delhi crowds gave bigger cheers for line-outs than tries because they enjoyed seeing the lifting.
Ryan was asked whether he can take anything from fifteens to use in sevens. He replied that the pitch just looks too congested, and he probably spends more time watching rugby-league matches, which more closely resemble patterns of play in the short code.
Lewis Moody asked him about tactics like the choke tackle, which Ireland used to good effect against the Wallabies at the World Cup.
Ryan pointed out that the Kenyans use exactly that technique in sevens. He did say that he’s looking at ways of introducing more mauling, because you are so reliant on the referee’s call in rucks.