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'We used to play 15s first and foremost, but sevens has found its own identity now'

By Rachael Burford
Rachael Burford of England during the Marriott London Sevens - Day Two at Twickenham on May 12, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

The first international experience I had in sevens was back in 2004 at a European competition and because we were women they took the pitch in by five metres and made us play 22 to 22 with inflatable posts. I’m not sure who was in charge of those decisions that day but how the game has changed!

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It’s very exciting with the 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens kicking off this weekend. I played in the first ever World Cup which women were involved in in Dubai in 2009. England had such a strong squad with the likes of Alice Richardson-Watmore, Michaela Staniforth, Claire Allan, Danielle Waterman and Heather Fisher- all of us had an eight to ten year career within sevens alongside our 15s careers.

We weren’t professional back then but England were the furthest ahead in terms of player pathways and domestic leagues. There were no build up tournaments played or much of a platform at all for sevens players.

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One of the memories I have from 2009 was being hot favourites to win with the RFU having prioritised sevens over 15s for the entire year leading up, but we went out to Australia in the quarter finals who went on to win it. This was such a big shock. I remember trying to get over that shock and process it, going out so early in the competition. Sevens can be a bit brutal like that and we suffered the same fate at the 2013 World Cup in Russia.

The competition in Moscow was really challenging because it was really hard to get in the country so we had hardly anyone watching either the men or women’s tournaments, which was strange going from Dubai with sold out crowds.

We lost to Russia on day one which meant we faced New Zealand in the quarter finals the next day and they beat us convincingly. We ended up playing Australia in the 5th/6th place play-offs and the heavens opened during the game and there was a complete monsoon. It was one of the most challenging games to play in both mentally as no one wants to be playing for 5th or 6th place but also due to the weather, it was just terrible!

The format of the 2022 Sevens World Cup is intense from the off in that your first game is basically a knockout game. If you win you go to go in the Championship competition, if you lose you go into the Challenge tournament. It’s a format which takes no prisoners and as I have experienced, it can be over very quickly, but I guess that adds to the excitement.

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What’s so great about the World Cup is you get to see many more countries and teams compared to the World Series. In the men’s competition there’s 24 teams with historically only 16 playing on the World Series, and for the women there are 16 teams for the World Cup and only 12 on the circuit. So, the exposure and opportunity to be a part of sevens is huge for those countries.

In terms of predictions for the women’s 2022 tournament in Cape Town, I don’t see anyone getting past Australia or New Zealand. They are both really settled sides and have a lot of experience in their teams with some youth but for the likes of England the balance is slightly off with a very young squad with only a few experienced heads and in high pressure knock out games that can be the determining factor.

However, every time I watch Fiji play they get better and better. They got to the final of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July and are pushing New Zealand and Australia really hard. I think they have the talent and ability to cause an upset. The USA on paper also have some incredible individuals but I think Australia, New Zealand and Fiji are my top three teams to watch.

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Sevens needs to be paid the credit it deserves for what it’s done to develop the women’s game as a whole.

It’s paved the way in terms of professionalism. The nature of the game and the ability to play and travel on the circuit year-round means professionalism is a necessity so I think it’s been a driver in terms of full time contracted players even at a semi-professional level.

In women’s rugby where the resources are so thin on the ground, sevens can provide an opportunity where teams can focus on a sevens programme initially which then builds to be a 15s programme and opens up the game in territories which aren’t traditional 15s countries but develop a really strong sevens culture.

In the past it was common to see players cross over and play both formats of the game but the transition isn’t as easy as it used to be. It’s really challenging now given the length of time sevens players are away from home, the training volume, and the high speed velocity you need to reach, plus the different contact scenarios.

However, cross over between the formats can be incredibly positive for the game when it’s done right. If you look at someone like Ruby Tui who has been such an incredible face of sevens for so many years and an unbelievable human and now she’s crossed over to the 15s game ahead of the postponed 2021 Rugby World Cup and the impact she is having as a rugby player but also an advocate for women’s sport and mental health is huge. We’re so lucky that she’s come into the 15s game and helped raised the profile. We’ve seen other big stars do the same with the likes of Portia Woodman and Sarah Hirini for New Zealand, Shannon Parry and Sharni Williams for Australia and Patricia Garcia who was a magician in sevens and a stalwart for the 15s game in Spain.

You also think of the Irish players who regularly cross codes given their shallow playing pool and those full time contracted sevens players get the opportunity to train and play at a high level and bringing that into a 15s setting is only going to be a positive thing for the game.

I think it’s been really challenging because of where the World Cup Sevens has fit into the calendar this year and the postponed World Cup in New Zealand which has meant a lot of players couldn’t do the required amount to do both tournaments.

However, one player who has been selected for both is Sharni Williams who can make an incredible impact to the Wallaroos playing in the centre but to compete in two World Cups in the space of a month is pretty crazy!

The transformation has been slow given the growth of the game year on year but since 2013 and the first Women’s World Series to what’s available for sevens athletes now; there’s a minimum of five to six legs on the World Series each year, a strong European tournament and Commonwealth Games for participating nations, plus the Olympics, so there’s never been such a platform to play on, as much investment in the game or opportunities to play.

It also feels like sevens has found its own identity now. Players used to be 15s players first and foremost and then sevens players if need be, whereas now it’s ‘I’m a sevens player and I don’t play 15s’ with solely sevens athletes. Take for example the likes of Maddison Levi for Australia, she is purely a sevens athlete, it’s in her DNA and she is ripping it up on the world stage at the age of 20.

For these players their athletic makeup is very different and with the opportunity to travel to these pinnacle events in amazing locations and be paid to do it is such a selling point.

For now, let’s see what the weekend brings and who will walk away with the title of world sevens champions in Cape Town!

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