SCOTLAND’S leading sevens players kick-off their latest HSBC World Series tournament amid the riches of Dubai with medals back home in Glasgow at the forefront of their mind.
Coach Stephen Gemmell returned to the helm at the start of the year and after managing to retain Scotland’s place in the world series by virtue of a last-gasp re-qualification route, he has told the players here that failure to improve on their position over the next few months could mean them losing their places for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
“These are a great bunch of guys, and very skilful players,” said Gemmell, “and I would love nothing better than to see them as a group compete for medals in the commonwealth Games, but what I have said this week is that medalling is the target set by the SRU, and the public really, and if I don’t think anyone is up to that I will sit down with Scott Johnson and the Edinburgh and Glasgow coaches and look at pulling other players in.
“No-one can be in any doubt about how big the Commonwealth Games will be for sport in Scotland next year, and the rugby sevens at Ibrox is already sold out, 40,000 people, on the Sunday and I’m pretty confident will be sold out on the Saturday too, so we’re looking at 80,000 people coming to the Games’ biggest single-sport event.
“With the coverage it will generate in the media, if we make it to the semi-finals and medal it will be huge for rugby across the country. Then you’ve got rugby sevens entering the Olympics in Rio two years later and the game going to another level. Now we’ve got to a part of that and so the guys have been left in no doubt that it is up to them to start delivering results, pushing on this season and putting themselves and Scotland into the frame for Commonwealth Games success.”
Gemmell has already had discussions with Johnson, both in his role as Scotland’s interim head coach, with a view to which internationalists might be available later in the season, and with his director of rugby hat on in terms of which players just under the Test radar could benefit from some exposure to top-quality sevens tournaments.
They have agreement that players selected for the Scotland Commonwealth Games squad must have played in two world series tournaments and/or be an exceptional Scotland internationalist, but the door is open to dropping in some leading Scottish performers Gemmell believes are capable of making the transition to international sevens.
“It is open and it will be considered,” he confirmed. “But it is always open to be fair. When you look at the current Scotland XVs squad, Sean Lamont, Nick de Luca, Max Evans, Ruaridh Jackson, Duncan Weir, Ross Ford, Kelly Brown, David Denton and Ross Rennie all played for us at sevens on the circuit, and so when we have just two pro teams and lack the spaces to give every talented player game-time a shot on the sevens circuit can be very beneficial.
“The guys here have to have pin-sharp skills and decision-making. Get it right and they will be lauded by 40,000 in the stands here at Dubai, and get it wrong and everyone will see because it is instantly punished. There is no hiding place here. These guys have to be extremely fit, strong and athletic, and continually improving their skills, and so while I’m the first to say that international XVs and sevens are two very different games, it can be very useful for us to help develop players.”
The world series used to kick off in Dubai, but now the Gold Coast in Australia launches the ten-tournament affair. Scotland started the season ranked 13th in the world, but finished 11th there, so are going in the right direction. But not until the reach the quarter-finals again, and the top eight, will it improve their seeding, so tomorrow they face Australia and Wales, who are seeded higher, and Spain.
But Gemmell is hopeful that this tournament will start the move back to the quarter-final stages and serious contention for semi-finals that were last encountered four years ago.
“There is no reason why it can’t. We have been there before and we know what it takes to get to that stage, and to be honest it’s not much more than the guys are producing at the moment. They are tiny margins.
“We came back from 21-0 down to draw 21-21 with Australia on the Gold Coast, and they often feature in the quarter-finals, and we have beaten and lost to Wales and Spain too. That last tournament was indicative of how close world sevens are becoming because we were within a score in every game we played.
“But, and this is where we have to understand the public perception and the work we need to do to get people in Scotland to take us more seriously, it’s results that matter. Simple. We have moved to Ravenscraig and have a great new set-up there that feels like home for the guys, training indoor every day which is much more like all the venues we play at, and training has been really high-quality.
“But no-one, rightly, cares about that. This is professional, international sport, and is a results-driven business, and so what matters is how you perform when the pressure is on, in the white-hot atmosphere of the world series. I know that the players are very capable of taking on and beating whoever we come up against - the only team we haven’t beaten is New Zealand and we’re not alone in that in Scotland.
“It is tough every time we got out there, but the guys are really up for this tournament and they know the pressure is on in what is probably the most exciting year, in terms of what lies at the end of it, that any of them have experienced in their rugby careers.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE