Beating them at their own game
July 9, 2012
With the 2012 J.P. Morgan Asset Management Sevens competition kicking off this Friday at the Twickenham Stoop, one interested viewer will be England Sevens head coach Ben Ryan.
His passion for the short-form of the sport is infectious. With some members of the press still treating Sevens like the runt of the litter, Ryan is constantly fighting a battle to get the sport recognised and portrayed in the best possible light.
Olympic inclusion in 2016 coupled with the ever-growing HSBC Sevens World Series has gone some way to ensure it is a global sport but it still does not save it from some detractors. Outspoken Sunday Times journalist Stephen Jones described it as "piffling" and played by "unknowns" back in January but fast-forward six months and even he is now seemingly coming round to the sport after taking in the unique and hangover-inducing Hong Kong leg of the World Series. Ryan admits he does have to fight some battles but the lines of attack and defence are usually drawn over a cup of coffee.
"I understood the angle that Stephen was coming from when talking about Sevens with concerns about the short form over the XVs," Ryan told ESPN. "After going to Hong Kong I hope that he can see the huge positives from the game. But the relationship between Sevens and XVs is important and needs to be raised. From our point of view, everyone who watches the game can see how high paced it is and how important the contact area is.
"You have to make decisions on the hoof and under pressure when you're completely knackered. You have to utilise a mental capacity where you drag yourself up and keep working. From a playing point of view, it is exhausting as it happens over two days. You wake up on the morning of day two after playing on day one feeling like you've been in a car crash but then come the important games on finals day. It takes a very special individual to flourish in Sevens."
But while Ryan fights the odd battle with journalists, there are those in England's domestic game who see Sevens as having a negative impact on their players rather than positive. The exertions a player goes through in Sevens sees them run between 1.8km and 2.5km a game with Ryan having witnessed one individual clock up a speed of 38 km/h. Covering that sort of distance over a short period of time is fairly exceptional and this is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, what some cite as being unbeneficial to the player.
"In the past we've had Premiership clubs telling us that they weren't keen on letting us use their players because they were losing weight while on tour," Ryan said. "With the new IRB regulations with five substitutes, we utilise a full team of strong athletes. If the players are losing any weight due to their exertions while on tour, then it is dead weight. In fact, over the past two years our players have put weight on rather than lost it. It's no longer an issue."
While some Premiership coaches are reluctant to allow their players to tour with England, others see the advantages. England now have 16 centrally contracted players meaning that is more unlikely that we will see some of the Premiership's leading lights tearing up the Sevens stage. But there are those who have benefitted from time with Ryan's side. One of England's rising stars Christian Wade has turned out for the Sevens side in the past while other internationals such as Tom Croft and David Strettle have also spent time in Sevens and Ryan is quick to emphasise the benefits that the short-form of the game offers its bigger brother.
"We used to have to pitch so vociferously over the years but recently with our full-timers it's got better," Ryan said. "Whoever comes to us is integrated in a programme both on and off the field. We're taking a player away on tour that is going to play in a full house in front of a crowd bigger than they're used to.
"They may also be playing with jet lag and travel fatigue and have to integrate themselves into a new team and it's all going to be live on TV so there's a pressure there to perform. When they do eventually make that Premiership side then they've already got a wealth of experience. Someone like Christian Wade is a terrific example of someone who has benefitted from life in the Sevens squad.
"On the field, Sevens exposes every single skill. After playing in a game, the player will understand the importance of skill execution and decision making. It's highlighted that one mistake in a Sevens game often translates as seven points so it's only going to develop a player. Our full-timers are constantly developing their skill set and that will only help the game in Sevens and XVs."
England lifted the World Cup Sevens title back in 1993 © Getty Images
Friday's London leg of the J.P. Morgan Sevens may well unearth a future Wade or Croft. While Ryan will inevitably keep a keen eye on proceedings at The Stoop, his extensive scouting means there will be few surprises for the England coach. With his elite playerson full-time Sevens contracts and his assistant Russell Earnshaw now dedicated solely to the England side, Ryan has assembled a strong infrastructure for Sevens to flourish.
England have taken the European Series and next summer sees England travel to Moscow for the Sevens World Cup and if Ryan's passion for the sport manifests itself on the field, then England are in a strong position to replicate their success back in 1993. Playing for England on that day were the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Tim Rodber and Matt Dawson who all went on to experience huge success on the XV stage. Next year's players will be in a completely different environment to Andrew Harriman's side back in 1993 and that is down to Ryan's hard work and staunch professionalism. The contrast between the two vintages is shown perfectly through Adedayo Adebayo's recollection of what it was like playing for that World Cup-winning side 19 years ago.
"We were basically a scratch side. We got together for the first time as a team the week before, played one practice match and went on to win! But there were a lot of quality players in that side and looking back that's why we were able to wing it slightly - the talent came through. Looking back though we had no expectations of winning at the start. We didn't know how far we would go. It just happened." You can guarantee that nothing will be left to chance when England travel to Russia next year.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games