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FEATURE ‘GB men can be medal contenders in Paris – if they get there’

‘GB men can be medal contenders in Paris – if they get there’
1 month ago

The future of sevens rugby looked bleak a decade ago as the leading nations struggled to find a place for the abbreviated game in future strategies and, crucially, funding priorities.

This weekend, England, Scotland and Wales will battle as one – Great Britain – for the last remaining spot in an Olympic Games sevens tournament where sevens will sit alongside football as the opening day’s events in Paris, rugby taking pride of place in the reconfigured Stade de France.

The GB women are already there, as are Ireland’s women and men, but the GB men have found the going tough this year and the South African ‘Blitzboks’, Tonga, Canada and others lie in wait in the repechage tournament in Monaco starting on Friday, all vying for that last qualifying place.

Robbie Fergusson
GB men, led by Robbie Fergusson, finished eighth in the HSBC SVNS standings this year (Photo Paul Kane/Getty Images)

For former Scotland sevens cap Ciaran Beattie, the head of the GB Sevens programme, it is a nervy but exciting time.

“For someone like me, who hails from Selkirk in the Borders, and grew up with sevens from an early age, it’s huge that we still have representation on the world stage,” he says, “and that we have this huge shop window this summer.

“When I say ‘we’, I also mean Scotland, England and Wales. Yes, there was some controversy when the nations decided that we would no longer compete as individual nations, and we’d come together as Great Britain to take on the Olympics challenge, but actually it’s come together pretty well.

There’s no quotas, no political decisions on including players from each nation… Everyone here has earned their jerseys. And now it’s about getting the men over that final hurdle and into the biggest show on earth.

“If you come into our dressing rooms, whether it’s the men or women, you’ll see Welsh flags, English flags and the Saltire up there, because for us it’s important that we still recognise our roots, where we came from and who we represent, and that doesn’t change whether you wear a GB shirt or a Welsh, English or Scottish one. It’s just that you’re also carrying the hopes of the whole of Great Britain now, and since we came together there has been a real excitement among the players and back-up staff for that.

“There’s no quotas, no political decisions on including players from each nation, and so there’s a respect there. We were clear on that from the start – you have to earn your spot and if it happens to be seven English players, then that’s the way it is. But it has been great to see how each nation has responded and the way players work hard to improve each other, and everyone here has earned their jerseys. And now it’s about getting the men over that final hurdle and into the biggest show on earth.”

Ciaran Beattie
Ciaran Beattie, seen here at the Dubai Sevens back in 2005, is a former Scotland sevens international (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images).

Scotland, famously, invented the game of sevens when in 1883 Melrose butcher David Sanderson and his apprentice Ned Haig came up with a fundraising idea to help the Greenyards club increase its income. Inviting all the Borders teams to take part in a one-day tournament was the idea, and clearly 15-a-side games of 80 minutes were not an option, so seven-a-side, shorter ties were proposed. It proved a financial and community success, and all the local clubs soon followed suit. Some of the most famous rugby names have gone on to grace the Greenyards event, including David Campese, Andy Irvine, Will Carling, Serge Blanco, Waisale Serevi, Gregor Townsend and Percy Montgomery, and it is now played in all corners of the globe.

It does not rival the XVs game, but to witness packed stadiums from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, Dubai to Suva to Tunisia, is to understand its undoubted appeal. From its launch as the IRB Sevens Series in 1999-2000, World Rugby has invested significantly in a global circuit as a strategic route to engaging and encouraging smaller nations for whom the XVs competitions simply don’t exist, and striving to make the sport something closer to global.

Dubai Sevens
Dubai has traditionally been one of the most popular stopovers on the sevens circuit (Photo by Christopher Pike/Getty Images)

It remained a controversial bone of contention among tier one nations, and their finance directors, until some bright spark spotted the potential of Olympics involvement. Rugby’s attempts to entice global powers the USA, China and Russia, and their money, into the sport was a struggle, as government funding for sport in those countries followed Olympic channels. A-ha. So, what if rugby was in the Games?

Years of lobbying finally paid off when the International Olympic Committee agreed in 2009 to admit rugby back into the Games in Brazil in 2016. It had last featured – as 15-a-side – with just France, Romania and winners the USA, in Paris in 1924. For the same reasons as Melrose went with sevens, the IOC and World Rugby agreed it had to be the shortened game to enable a credible tournament to be played in a short time-frame. The home nations had to enter as Great Britain, and despite being thrown together, the men’s team finished runners-up in Rio to Fiji, with the women in fourth. They both finished fourth at Tokyo 2020, but now have a more professional approach, as Beattie explains.

I was suddenly given a blank piece of paper and asked to come up with a GB sevens programme for men and women. So, the past two years have been a huge learning curve, for me and everyone involved.

“Up until 2022, in fact until 10 days before the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, we had sevens programmes in each country and would come together just for the Olympics, and then go back to our own nations. I think the team probably surprised a lot of people by winning silver in 2016, but after we missed out in Tokyo, the decision was made to unite under the GB banner on the world sevens circuit, to create a performance level for GB between Olympics.

“Coming just 10 days before we played against each other, as Scotland, England and Wales, in Birmingham it came as a surprise. I was suddenly given a blank piece of paper and asked to come up with a GB sevens programme for men and women. So, the past two years have been a huge learning curve, for me and everyone involved. But it’s also been a fantastic experience.

“It’s not easy because players have come from all sorts of backgrounds in 15s rugby, so you have young players who still want to be a 15s international and play in the Six Nations and World Cup, while others see this as their one shot to play international rugby. Our job as coaches is to give them the opportunity to develop those ambitions within this environment, get on the same page and be successful.”

Ross McCann
GB’s Ross McCann, named in Scotland’s initial Six Nations squad this year, will join Edinburgh next season (Photo Alberto Gardin/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Beattie, who is also head coach of the women’s team, admits that the professionalising of sevens has taken it away from 15s, and the idea that it is a mere stepping stone to success in the longer format.

“Don’t get me wrong, we have some cracking 15s players involved with GB men and women right now. Some of the women have come back to us from big performances in the Six Nations, and Ross McCann, a good Scottish winger, has shown in sevens the world-class player he can be, and has been signed by Edinburgh, where I think he’ll go on to be very successful.

“But the game has moved on hugely to the extent that they’re almost two different sports. You only need to look at Antoine Dupont. He is so excited to be representing France in the Olympic Games – an Olympic medal is clearly a massive thing for him, despite what he’s won in rugby – but he accepted that even as the world’s best rugby player he wasn’t good enough to walk straight into a French team at the Olympics and chose to miss the Six Nations Championship to get to grips with sevens again.

Antoine Dupont
Antoine Dupont scored against GB at the recent Madrid event and will be a huge draw in Paris (Photo Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)

“A sevens player can step back into 15s more easily that you can go the other way now, because of how organised, tactical and uniquely skilful sevens has become. When I played you could pitch up a week before and play sevens – guys a decade or so before that pitched up on the day, after a night of team-bonding pints! You can’t do that at the top level now, but, still, sevens and 15s cater for all shapes and sizes… just extremely fit shapes and sizes.”

The GB men’s team is coached by former England sevens chief Tony Roques, and Beattie’s compatriots Scott Riddell and former Scotland wing Sean Lamont are also part of the GB management. The men are in a pool this weekend with Canada, Uganda and China, and whether they claim that last spot in Monaco, and go to the Olympics, or not, there is a commitment from the home nations that GB is the route for sevens in the home nations. The return to individual countries is planned for the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens, though venues for the 2026 events are still to be decided.

“The next cycle is about how we spread the net wider and find our place in UK rugby as a whole,” adds Beattie. “Sevens was a massive asset to Scottish rugby with its small professional base. We didn’t cost a lot of money, relatively speaking, and when you look at the number of players developed in the sevens environment into very good professionals for Glasgow and Edinburgh, and stalwarts of the club game, it provided good bang for its buck. Add in the coaches, physios, doctors, managers and admin people that toured the world with sevens learning how to do their job professionally, and you see the value of sevens to the sport.”

Rugby will be big in this Olympics, from the moment it opens the Games in the Stade de France, and it’s huge for rugby that GB is there. We’re there with the women… and I’m positive that if the men get there, they will also be medal contenders.

There is little doubt that sevens has transcended its traditional place in the amateur game, drawing many thousands of new people to its events around the globe, from players across Africa, America, the Middle and Far East, and parts of Europe where rugby hasn’t had a strong voice, to supporters, businesses and sponsors who have become passionate fans across carnival weekends. Many GB players will be more well-known around the world than in their own country, something Olympics’ exposure can change.

“The world series tournaments are definitely eye-openers and routes into the sport for many people around the world,” agrees Beattie. “They bring something different to 15s as over eight weekends, and lots of ties through three days, they let players engage with the fans up close and personal, and that helps to sell rugby.

“Rugby will be big in this Olympics, from the moment it opens the Games in the Stade de France, and it’s huge for rugby that GB is there. We’re there with the women, and you will see some real current and future stars from each of the three countries in that team, and, while it’s hugely competitive – sevens is still sevens and can turn in a flash – I’m positive that if the men get there, they will also be medal contenders.”

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