This time four years ago, playing rugby was the last thing Robbie Fergusson was thinking about as he battled cancer but now he finds himself preparing for a Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.
The 24-year-old was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in early 2014 when he was playing for Ayr. After making a full recovery the centre has forged on with his career, making a couple of appearances for Glasgow Warriors before a loan spell at London Scottish.
Last season saw him integrated into the sevens programme and next weekend at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, will be the culmination of a first year in the abbreviated game which he has relished as a steep learning curve.
“When I got ill, rugby was the last thing on my mind to be honest,” he said before the 12-man squad and coach John Dalziel departed for California. “I never thought I’d go to a sevens World Cup, it will be a pleasure.”
Fergusson finds it difficult to list all the things he feels he has learned and added to his game since joining the Ravenscraig-based sevens programme last summer.
“It’s endless really,” he said. “Luckily we didn’t have our first tournament until December so I had plenty of time to get into the shape.
“There’s never a down moment in sevens. I’ve come off the bench and played three minutes and after it can hardly walk.”
With only two pro teams the sevens, which survived a review into its future a couple of years ago, has proved invaluable in providing an outlet for young talent. For many the end goal is using it as a launchpad to a pro career in 15s, with Glasgow and Scotland scrum-half George Horne one recent example of how that can be achieved.
“Everyone has got their own individual things to work on, no matter what position,” said Fergusson. “It’s good to sharpen your game. For myself in centre I’ve had to play half-back a lot, work on my distribution for 15s. Wingers play in the forwards and learn new skillsets. It’s a great development tool and you see someone like George who has used it to kick on.”
This will be the seventh sevens World Cup, playing for the Melrose Cup, after that inaugural event at Murrayfield back in 1993.
It will differ from the usual world series circuit with a straight knock-out format. The Scots enter at the last-16 stage and will face the winners of the preliminary round clash between Kenya and Tonga.
“Our last game came against Kenya in Paris and you’d probably favour them over the Tongans on form,” said Fergusson. “They are big, physical athletes, come at you hard and look to offload. Defensively they’ll really come at us at the background, so technically we need to be good. But Tonga are also a big, physical, offloading team.”
Last season was a bit of a transitional phase for Scotland on the world circuit but the feeling is that this young new group are at the start of a similar journey to the one which saw Calum MacRae’s squad get to the point of challenging for an winning Cup titles.
“It’s been an interesting year. Much longer than usual. I think this is week 53 of our season,” noted Fergusson. “Credit to strength and conditioning, physio side of things most of the boys have been right for every tournament.
“Boys will get injured but that gives young boys a chance. Like myself coming into the programme, I didn’t know how many chances I’d get and I ended up playing nine tournaments.”
Despite the long season, Fergusson says the squad are fresh and, representing the home of sevens, desperate to put in a good show in San Francisco.
“Most of the heavy work has been done in the last three weeks of training,” he said. “It will be fine tuning of set plays, a bit of analysis on opposition. We’ve done a lot on Kenya and Tonga as well, plays we think we can exploit against them.
“And then it will be just getting the bodies right, jetlag can be a problem so it’s just getting our sleep right. It’s only four games so we need to hit the ground running.
“Protocols are different. Sometimes we can sleep on flights, some we can’t. When we get there sunlight is one of the biggest things to adapt to. It might be midnight UK time, 3pm there, so you need to get out in the sunlight, stay active and keep yourself awake as long as possible, get your body clock shifted and your sleep pattern will sort itself.”
Fergusson has been getting used to the emotional whirl which comes with obvious change up in speed of play in the abbreviated game.
“Yeah, we call it the rollercoaster, you don’t want to get on it,” he said with a smile.
“Paris [in the penultimate tournament of the season] was a great example. We had the high of beating South Africa and then played Canada, a few things didn’t go right and you come crashing down and then into a game against Russia we had to win.
“It’s all the time, up and down. In 15s, win or lose, you get a week to deal with it and sort your emotions. But sometimes it can be a good thing if you come off a loss you can get straight back out there and look to put things right.”
Rugby World Cup Sevens, San Francisco, Saturday 21 July-Sunday 22 July.