Friday 19 January 2018 / 06:42 PM

Sevens rugby and the cross over players

As a ‘fatty’ that has played Rugby for 25 years or so, I have never ventured my abilities beyond the forward pack. I don’t have the speed, agility or looks to wear any number higher than 8 on my back. I like to hit the rucks and mauls, and when I get the ball in my hands, I like to run straight and hard. These are the things that I love about rugby; it has a place for the over-100kg people that only know life in the trenches.

Even though I enjoy the trench warfare, I appreciate the speed and agility that is shown by the men and women with double digits on their back. The fancy footwork and skills that it takes to be one of these players is beyond my skill set. They have the talent to dominate the space provided that, honestly, a player of substantial size wouldn’t know what to do with.

These types of players have also found their niche in the form of Sevens Rugby. Soon after the invention of the 15-man code, some Scottish boys decided to abbreviate the game to only include seven players aside and play a shorter game.

During the professional years, the game of Sevens Rugby has evolved to what it is today. The game is a worldwide phenomenon, with a World Series held around the globe annually. With the nature of the game as it is, there is little room for mistakes and less time to make up for them, so any team is capable of winning a game on any given day.

The athletes that compete at this level train specifically for the game of Sevens. They sacrifice bulk to put on speed, but there are the exceptions in every team with at least one player reaching triple figures in weight. The majority of the players, though, are light, fast and have an excellent power to weight ratio. They thrive on the space that Sevens provides and have stamina unmatched by their 15-a-side counterparts.

The Sevens players compete at the highest level every year and no game is considered an easy game. During most events, the teams play three 14-minute games a day; maybe more depending on the finals draw. The stress and demands of the game push these athletes beyond what orthodox rugby players are considered capable of.

This game has become so popular within the worldwide sporting community that it has been accepted into major events like the Commonwealth Games and, as of 2016, the Olympic Games. With these big events taking the Sevens format onboard, countries that compete now want to put their best players on the ground to compete for the gold medal.

But here is where it gets a little tricky. The Commonwealth Games are in less than a month, on the 26th and 27th of July in Scotland, so teams already have an idea of who will be representing their respective countries subject to injuries. Most teams have their core players that they want out there, but they have reached into the 15-man game to call up some big names.

Blitzbokke, the South African Sevens Rugby team have called up Test stars Bryan Habana, Schalk Brits, Cheslin Kolbe, Cornal Hendricks and Warren Whiteley. As a coach, I would love to have Habana on my team; with 55 Test tries, he knows his way to the try-line. Some bulk and aggression is added by Brits, and with the return of Sevens campaigner Hendricks, the team looks strong with the regular members also in the squad.

South Africa aren’t the only ones that have dipped into the orthodox game for players. Australia has done the same. The new Australia Sevens coach, Geraint John, has asked for the release of Liam Gill, Sean McMahon and Luke Morahan, and has been granted these players. Morahan has been ruled out with injury though, but the other two are available.

Both unions understand that a strong team is needed to participate in the Commonwealth Games as well as to qualify for the Olympics, so they have agreed under respective high performance clauses to field the best team possible.

I understand this need to field the best side, but the one thing that plays on my mind is how the other players that are regular hardworking Sevens specialists may feel. They are professional athletes, so they won’t say anything that would cause disharmony in the team environment – and only a fool would say no to the incoming names – but does that mean that they get a free ride on the back of the hard work done by the regular members?

Most of the players that are being called into the Sevens squads were former members who took up contracts with 15-a-side teams, so they are familiar with the setups and the game overall. With the Olympics now being a major event for the Sevens teams, which has effectively replaced the Sevens World Cup, teams will now focus on this every four years. It’ll be a huge coup to claim a gold medal for a game that was last played in the Games in 1924, be it the orthodox version, with the USA standing atop the dais.

But is this cross-code culture good for the game and the athletes overall? It has some success stories, with a Sevens player taking up the 15-man game and making a huge impact, but has it really worked the other way? In the early years of the Sevens tournaments, the crossover of players was a common practice, but over the years with the increase of scheduling, there has been a clear separation of players and each game requires a different training regime.

This era of professional sports has allowed players to ply their trade in a variety of arenas, so it isn’t a surprise to find players in different jerseys and different fields from their regular placements. Any nation will do what they can to win a championship – even if it means calling up non-regular players.

A team that is boosted by the inclusion of star players can only do better in the long run, but the risk of creating a void could exist once the players return to their respective teams. It’s a small risk, but one worth betting on to claim glory. The competing nations will invest heavily in an Olympic sport, so the competition will be tougher than the regular world circuit. The normally dominant nations will want to stay on top with the addition of Test-quality stars.

The inclusion of star players is important, but under agreements, they are not to interfere with Super Rugby teams or the Wallabies. Only if a team is no longer finals contention are players to be released if called up for international Sevens duty. This agreement can work and only time will tell if the crossover of players is a success. Commonwealth and Olympic glory will determine further experiments with this type of policy.

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Warren Adamson

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