How many Scots would get into a World team if it was picked on merit? The list of candidates is a little limited but that is exactly what James Fleming achieved a few weeks back when the Scotland Sevens speedster was selected in the Dream Team at the end of the Wellington leg of the HSBC World Sevens series.
The best seven sevens players in Wellington consisted of one Canadian, three Fijians, two South Africans, including the lightning quick Seabelo Senatla, and Scotland’s very own Fleming, who has travelled a long way since making his initial mark at Perthshire Rugby Club.
Fleming filled his boots in the tournament, helping himself to five tries including one at the death to beat Canada to the bronze medal. As he skipped past a Welsh defender in inches of space the commentator purred, “he absolutely owned the defensive line” but it was his efforts at the opposite end of the field that caught the eye. A track-back tackle on England’s Philip Burgess helped prevent a certain score, Fleming covering acres of ground before dislodging the ball from the Englishman’s grasp over the try line.
And what happened next put a smile on many a Scottish face. The video was doctored and re-posted with Fleming charging down a grassy slope to a background of bagpipes... a nice touch from World Rugby, of all people.
The Scotland squad are currently in Las Vegas ahead of this weekend’s tournament in the middle of the Mojave desert but we spoke to Fleming before he left and the winger confirmed that he is not the first Scot to have earned a Dream Team place.
“It actually happened in Wellington two years ago when Damien Hoyland got in the Dream Team,” Fleming recalls, “but that was my first time in the team of the tourney. It doesn’t happen too often so it was quite a privilege to get there, so that was pretty pleasing.
“It happened overnight, the whole social media thing, I didn’t notice the video, I just came across the guys laughing during breakfast. It’s a good effort from World Rugby and my Facebook page erupted. You can score as many tries as you like but fans love a good tackle!”
Fleming has been around for a while now, long enough to remember the old days when Scotland were so ordinary that the public had effectively washed their hands of them. The change in the current squad could not be more pronounced if they took to the field sporting kilts.
Like the 15-man game, Scotland Sevens are currently ranked a barely believable fifth in the world. Scotland not only won the last tournament of last season, at Twickenham of all places if you are looking for an omen ahead of next weekend, but they followed that up with a cracking start to the current campaign, finishing fifth, fourth and then third in Wellington before blotting their copybook with 15th spot in Sydney, although there were mitigating circumstances.
Since the squad’s very existence was threatened two years ago, the core of sevens specialists has shrunk to just eight players, with the remainder coming from the pro-teams, the BT Premiership or, in the case of Ally Miller in the next two rounds, from London Scottish. Five of those eight players were injured in Sydney and, even then, the only roasting they got came from the home side Australia; everyone else including New Zealand beat them by no more than one converted try.
Something has changed and, like the 15-man game, a new coach has been at the centre of Scotland’s renaissance.
“There is no denying that the coaches have made a massive difference,” says Fleming. “Kitty [coach Callum MacRae] has come in and brought new aspects to the game, individual players have improved, I feel like I have really benefitted from him being my coach and all round he has brought the squad on.
“There is a level of consistency in the squad as well. It’s a really good squad with a really good culture. All of a sudden we are getting players who are wanting to come away on the sevens, guys like Dougie Fife who is just enjoying playing.
“And we have definitely benefited from a surge in self belief. There were times when I have sat down and watched finals and I have wondered what it would be like to contest one and having been in one and having won one, that was awesome. Having come away from the first two tournaments as fourth in the world and coming away after the next two still in fifth in the world after finishing third in Wellington, our second best result ever, is amazing.”
Scotland have had to dig deep into the barrel to make up for some of the injuries for the next two rounds in Vegas and Vancouver. Edinburgh duo Tom Brown, pictured, and Sean Kennedy join Miller in making their sevens bow. Scotland XVs flanker Hugh Blake is recovered from injury and Fijian-born Joe Nayacavou is back in harness after turning out in army colours.
The Scots have a tough looking pool, alongside Fiji, Australia and Japan, and are unlikely to start as favourites in the city synonymous with gambling.
“We used to stay at Planet Hollywood and now in the Monte Carlo but the lobby of every hotel is a casino,” says Fleming. “It’s quite surreal because you are walking through a casino with your rugby boots to go training and there are people up to all sorts because this is Vegas!”