Allan Massie: Why our Sevens players face an uncertain future

International nature of the World Series circuit means it is unlikely to return any time soon

Scotland’s Tom Brown breaks away to score a try against Australia during the Vancouver leg of the World Sevens Series in March. It may be the last tournament for some time on the abbreviated game’s international circuit. Picture: Don MacKinnon/AFP via Getty Images
Scotland’s Tom Brown breaks away to score a try against Australia during the Vancouver leg of the World Sevens Series in March. It may be the last tournament for some time on the abbreviated game’s international circuit. Picture: Don MacKinnon/AFP via Getty Images

The World Sevens series has been mothballed since February, and it’s not clear when it will resume. One would guess that this will be some time off. The return of a tournament that requires players, staff and officials to fly all over the world every second week or so will still surely be low on the list of priorities even when the Coronavirus is on the ebb worldwide.

This has consequences. The present contracts for members of England’s Sevens squad expire next month, and Twickenham has spoken. Faced as it is with a huge drop in revenue, the RFU has announced that these contracts will not be renewed. These days international Sevens players mostly play nothing but Sevens and so members of the England squad are faced with both redundancy and inactivity. A few may get short-term contracts with clubs in the Premiership or the Championship, but hard times mean that clubs are more likely to be discarding than recruiting.

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I would suppose that the immediate future for the Scottish Sevens players and coaches is equally murky, though it might be possible to slot players temporarily into the Super Six semi-pro clubs, finance permitting.

There is a knock-on effect. Assuming the postponed Tokyo Olympics can be staged next year as is now intended, the British and Northern Irish Olympic squad is committed to take part in the Rugby Sevens event. In 2016 the GB squad won the silver medal. It was composed mostly of players experienced in the World Sevens tournament with a few who had been playing the full 15-a-side game, among them Scotland’s Mark Bennett. Given that the nucleus of that Olympic squad came from the English Sevens one, Twickenham’s decision to dispense with that squad, for the time being anyway, makes it seem unlikely that a comparably strong squad can be assembled for Tokyo.

This is only one more uncertainty in the prevailing uncertainty, and will probably worry few except those immediately affected; the World Sevens circuit doesn’t after all attract great attention here from either the media or the public. But, coming just when there is some evidence of a second spike in Covid-19 cases, it reminds one that it’s a stiff journey back to normality, and has one wondering if the admirably ambitious programme for professional rugby this autumn can be fulfilled. For the little that it’s worth, my view is that, until there is an effective vaccine, a return to something like normality will be possible only if this second spike results in very few deaths and demonstrates that, except for the old and frail and people with “pre-existing medical conditions”, contracting the virus is for the young, middle-aged and healthy elderly, no worse than a nasty bout of flu. Should this prove to be the case, then there would be no more reason to ban spectator sport than there is in an ordinary winter.

Meanwhile, the news that John Dalziel has been appointed Scotland’s forwards coach is very welcome. He was a fine player himself, an old-fashioned rummel-’em-up Borders forward, the kind that Bill McLaren used to love, and has shown himself a very effective coach at club and age-group international level. There are of course some who think that you can’t coach an international team effectively if you haven’t yourself played at the top level of the game. Evidence that this isn’t so goes back a long way. Indeed Bill Dickinson, the first man appointed as Scotland’s coach (though the SRU at first styled him “adviser to the captain”) never played for Scotland himself. But he did a very good job as a glance at Scotland’s record in the first half of the 1970s shows.

Nobody now supposes that it’s necessary to have been a great or even particularly good footballer to manage or coach a club successfully. The skills required are different. Of course there are always some great players who prove to be great coaches too. But you can be a great player in any sport without having to think much about your game or acquiring technical expertise. I suppose golf was the first sport where this was generally recognised. It’s not only knowledge a coach needs. He or she must have understanding of people who may be very different from him.

So what is called emotional understanding or empathy is needed. With this goes the ability to motivate, and successful motivation requires different approaches for different players. The good coach knows when to speak and when to shut up. Too much talking,too much theory can bore the players. Then they just switch off. An enthusiastic novice coach once accompanied the great Australian rowing coach Steve Fairbairn along the towpath. Afterwards, rather disappointed, he said, “you don’t seem to say much.” “Right, and I stop bloody fools from saying anything.”

It’s an old story, but one that good coaches put into practice.

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