AHEAD of the IRB World Series leg at Scotstoun this weekend, it is clear that rugby sevens has never been bigger.
The 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow this summer will be the largest in history and the nine-stage HSBC Sevens World Series has recently announced record broadcast figures spanning 152 worldwide territories and 16 different languages. It is, however, perhaps the inclusion of the sport in the Rio 2016 Games for the first time in Olympic history that will go on to fully establish the abbreviated game as a major player on the global sports roster.
Yet, within the structure of Scotland’s own National Sevens team there are currently only ten full-time professional sevens players, and several amateur club players still find themselves struggling, both technically and physically, to contribute at international level.
There are, however, a number of talented, young club sevens players in and around the fringes of the Scotland Sevens set-up such as Liam Steele (Stewart’s Melville FP RFC), Lewis Young (Jed-Forest RFC) and Darren Gillespie (Kelso RFC) who seemingly have the technical ability to play at the highest level, but who perhaps lack the extra funding and physical conditioning to be able to progress to being full-time sevens players.
Stephen Gemmell, the re-cently reappointed head coach of Scotland Sevens, is aware of the increased physical demands of international sevens and how it differs from club sevens.
“I think the physical element of the World Series is becoming more and more confrontational,” he said. “You only need to look at the top countries, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa…they’re physical at the breakdown. The breakdown is vital now. If you look at domestic sevens, in many ways it’s still the old-fashioned way of avoid the contact and move it wide, happy to go backwards before you go forwards. In the World Series, if you do that you get hammered behind the gain line and you get put under pressure.”
When asked about how big the physical gap is for players, Gemmell is pragmatic: “There’s an element of physical conditioning that any player coming in needs to work on to allow us, as a national team, to play the style of rugby that suits us. That’ll be the biggest thing for them, understanding the physical, confrontational nature of the game now. Yes, there’s still a lot of space on the pitch, but you have to earn the right to play in that space. It’s down to a combination of physical attributes and technical ability.”
For any amateur club players based in Scotland who excel at sevens it becomes a balancing act between conditioning themselves for the possibility of fast-flowing sevens and also preparing for the rigours of the 15 throughout the Scottish winter.
Liam Draycott is one such player. The 23-year-old currently plays full back for Currie RFC and is in the extended Scotland Sevens set-up. He finds the difference in physical preparation between the two one of the biggest challenges.
“I’ve gone through phases of getting big for pre-season and getting into pre-season trying to get my weight up and then you get into Sevens and you have to lose it all. So, it’s really hard to balance that.”
Mentally, it also takes its toll. Draycott was called up to the Gold Coast Sevens then to Dubai as a reserve before returning back to play for Currie. “I enjoy stepping up a gear and it’s obviously something I want to go to, but mentally… it’s not degrading per se, but to come down and then play slower, less entertaining rugby because that’s what I enjoy… entertaining rugby, running with the ball. So from that perspective it is a bit tough mentally kind of bouncing between the two without knowing which week, which tournaments you’re going to.”
He is not alone either. Last season saw the extraordinary situation whereby Andrew Skeen, an experienced and talented stand-off with Melrose RFC, played for the Border club’s second XV on a Saturday afternoon before flying out to the South African leg of the IRB World Series to play sevens for Scotland the following Monday. There seems to be an obvious need to somehow bridge the gap between these two worlds.
Gemmell recognises this. “I think as we build towards Glasgow 2014 we need to have more players exposed to that international competition so that the group we’re picking from is capable of performing because it is hugely important for us that there’s pressure in terms of players competing.
“If players are under pressure to perform because someone can take their place, then suddenly they have to perform and that’s something we need to develop.”
The question still remains on how to develop it. The notion of having a well-structured, well-funded development sevens teams competing in second-tier competitions is a solution put forward by many including Gemmell, but also ex-Scotland Sevens and British Army player Mark Lee.
“There probably needs to be something along the lines of what we had maybe six-seven years ago with the Scottish Thistles potentially. I think Scotland possibly missed a trick with the second-tier tournament that goes on in Europe every year. ”
So why isn’t this in place already? For Lee, the third most capped Scotland Sevens player in history, it isn’t down to a lack of external funding opportunities. “What I found when I was involved at that level, for about eight years, was that there wasn’t a shortage of people who were keen to put money towards Scotland but then it becomes quite complicated at the National/Union level as to whether they’re going to accept individuals sponsoring teams to develop their young players coming through. It comes down to the will of the Union.
“If you have someone like Steve Gemmell or Graham Shiel running the IRB team, then the only break they get is in the summer and that’s when that European Series is on, so they would need to organise it to bring in an interim coach or manager for that summer period and bring on the players. I think that’s one of the areas that is crying out for development.”
Gemmell picks 12-man squad
THE Scotland 7s squad for the eighth leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series has been cut from 14 men to 12.
Returning to the group for the Emirates Airline Glasgow 7s are twice-capped scrum-half and elite development player Alex Glashan, Glasgow Warrior Byron McGuigan and Edinburgh Rugby’s Lee Jones.
The extra bodies have been very useful for the host’s preparations and coach Stephen Gemmell said: “This week, from a preparation point of view, has been good with the extra players because we have done a lot of seven on seven practice, which has been invaluable. It has also meant added competition for places, which has kept everyone on their toes.
“In the 12, we have named an established group of players, who have played regularly on the circuit for a number of years now.”
On day one (Saturday, 4 May) Scotland 7s will play Portugal (1.04pm), England (4.10pm) and New Zealand (7.21pm) with their day two fixtures determined by these results. It is imperative that they do well as they seek to move away from the relegation zone, where they are currently tied with USA in 12th place. Only the top 12 sides at the conclusion of the Glasgow tournament are guaranteed core status for next year’s HSBC Sevens World Series.
Scotland squad: Chris Dean (Scotland 7s EDP), Struan Dewar (Scotland 7s), Michael Fedo (Scotland 7s), Alex Glashan (Scotland 7s EDP), Colin Gregor (captain) (Scotland 7s), John Houston (Scotland 7s), Lee Jones (Edinburgh Rugby), Michael Maltman (Scotland 7s), Byron McGuigan (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Riddell (Scotland 7s), Colin Shaw (Scotland 7s) and Andrew Turnbull (Scotland 7s).