Dubai or bust for England Sevens
March 2, 2009
Head coach Ben Ryan will lead England at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai © Getty Images
The focus for most in 2009 is simple. The British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa is set to rekindle one of the greatest traditions in rugby, but before all eyes are diverted back to the race for selection many would do well to focus for a while on one of the emerging traditions in the world game - the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
The 2009 tournament will be the fifth since England lifted the inaugural Melrose Cup in 1993 and kicks off at the beautiful Sevens Stadium in Dubai on March 5. The three day competition will showcase the heavyweights of the Sevens game as well as some of the finest talent from the sport's emerging nations and women's game. The IRB Sevens World Series has already become a genuine draw for fans as it criss-crosses the globe and it provides refreshing change to the power structures of the 15-a-side game.
England, who have recently slipped to an all-time low in the 15-a-side game with their yellow-card flavoured tilt at the Six Nations, are joint-top of the world rankings in Sevens thanks in no little part to their coach Ben Ryan. A former teacher and versatile utility back for Nottingham and West Hartlepool, Ryan took up the reins with the Sevens side in 2007 after taking Newbury into National League One.
Under Ryan's tutelage England have powered to four of the last five Sevens series finals, winning the Wellington tournament at the "Cake Tin", the Westpac Stadium. They enter the World Cup as joint top seeds alongside South Africa and will have their eyes on a second title.
"We're as confident as we can be going in to such a big tournament," said Ryan. "We're ranked equal number one in the world and made four out of the last five finals. More importantly we've got a squad that is all fit healthy and confident.
"We're in a position where luckily this time around we're one of the big sides, it's up to us. I keep telling the boys that this World Cup won't be decided by luck, it will be decided by choice. It should be our choice."
Ryan has fostered a blend of youth and experience in his squad, pairing Sevens veterans Ben Gollings, the all time leading scorer in the Sevens series, and Newcastle's Ollie Phillips alongside explosive youngsters such as Leeds wing Tom Biggs. Ryan is careful to maintain this balance, with his focus on introducing players into an environment where they can learn and grow as well as experience top level competition.
"You've always got to be careful, particularly in Sevens, with not having too many career Sevens players," said Ryan. "We've young guys that we want to give a platform to, to move through into the senior game. I think we've got a nice mix, we're lucky that we've got the likes of Ollie Phillips, Ben Gollings and Damu Damu, all world class Sevens players and all playing at the same time of their life together, it's a delight really.
"You can see as a coach which players will move on and play at the next level. Seeing how they handle thinking clearly under pressure, playing in both hostile and positive environments, it gives you that whole gamut of experience. I can see from a worm's eye view how these players are going to go at a higher level. The data that we can collate from these guys is immense."
Ryan has also handed a lifeline to Leicester Tigers wing Tom Varndell, calling him in to the squad for the tournament after a difficult year. Having begun the season in Martin Johnson's Elite Player Squad he has fallen out of favour at both club and international level. Varndell has not played Sevens since the Commonwealth Games in 2006, but the choice to turn to him was an easy one for Ryan.
"He has the ability to pair up with Tom Biggs and be two of the best finishers in the World Cup," said Ryan. "He's got huge amounts of pace, other coaches will see him in our squad and realise that he is probably the quickest Sevens player at the World Cup. Twinned with that his pace is proven, he's been top try-scorer in previous tournaments and we've won tournaments on the back of that. A good Tom Varndell performance is a pretty good one."
Ryan's belief in learning and dealing with pressure is a key facet of his success. His Sevens side allows players to understand how to perform under pressure, or in the case of Varndell allows them a platform to regain confidence in their abilities. Sevens creates an environment for players to learn every detail of the professional game, from playing to travelling, an atmosphere that will be experienced by England's director of elite rugby Rob Andrew at the World Cup.
"It's a great underlining of the values that Sevens can bring," said Ryan. "Rob Andrew will be out with us at the World Cup and will be able to see first hand what the environment, and learning environment more importantly, can bring for these younger players.
"To play at such a big tournament with the pressure on these players is just one of the ingredients as to why Sevens is of value. Then you've the value of the technical aspects, the breakdown at Sevens, your core skills under pressure, the travelling, the jet-lag, the heat and constantly having to play against the top nations. It's such a valuable vehicle. We don't think it's the be all and end all, we just think it's another important cog in an elite player's development."
The raft of names that have emerged from the England Sevens machine backs up Ryan's assertions, with Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson graduating from the World Cup class of 1993 and more recently the likes of James Haskell, Danny Care, Paul Sackey and Mathew Tait going on to win full England honours after a debut in Sevens.
The current crop will have a way to go to emulate the winning side of 1993, with the Sevens landscape looking more and more competitive. In recent months Argentina have won the San Diego Sevens, Kenya and Wales have defeated the previously invincible New Zealand and the USA have emerged as genuine contenders, meaning that the old guard will have to scrap for all they are worth in Dubai.
England are up against the Kenyans, Tunisia and Zimbabwe in Group E and Ryan is not taking anything for granted.
"I think this World Cup will be no different from the IRB tournament, there will be some surprises," he said. "We've got one of the best sides in the world in our group in Kenya, we would be a little bit churlish to think about anything beyond that. That's a massive game for us but the big teams will put in big performances in this World Cup, that's for sure. We've got genuine title contenders from that group of teams that you just wouldn't expect to be playing and beating the likes of England, New Zealand and South Africa. When you look at the USA, Portugal and Kenya, they're all big teams on the Sevens circuit now."
An arena for emerging players and emerging nations, the Sevens series and World Cup looks set to play an exciting part in the world game's development. If you're looking for the next big thing, look no further than the Sevens Stadium this coming weekend.
The All Blacks' form is not a peaking issue, but Hansen must threaten to wield his axe, to demand improvement, Craig Dowd writes
"It has been the World Cup that smashed down the gender barriers of the sport." Tom Hamilton looks back at a remarkable tournament
A selection of the best pictures from England's historic World Cup triumph in Paris as they beat Canada 21-9
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Women's World Cup, the opening round of the Top 14 and the Rugby Championship