Starmers: A new era dawns for Sevens

(IRB.COM) Monday 8 October 2012
 Starmers: A new era dawns for Sevens
All Change: New Zealand won a 10th World Series in 2011/12 but will a much changed side hit the ground running on the Gold Coast?

In his first column of the new season broadcaster Nigel Starmer-Smith marvels at fitness results, mulls over preparation and sums up the teams selected so far for round one of the HSBC Sevens World Series on the Gold Coast.

I sense that this season brings with it a new and exciting era in the world of Rugby Sevens.

Not only are we embarking on a fourteenth season of IRB Sevens, we're also entering a new Olympic cycle building to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, in which Rugby Sevens, its athletes and its coaches, feature for the first-ever time.

There are far more immediate targets too in the nine rounds of the HSBC Sevens World Series, starting this weekend in Australia, and then the Rugby World Sevens 2013 in Moscow next June.

I was watching England Sevens training last week. The organisation was efficient and the set-up was equivalent to what you might expect of the England 15-a-side test squad.

Coach Ben Ryan was in charge with assistant coaches, medical and physios, a video analyst recorded  action and the players are all disciplined on diets, personal fitness regimes, skills and testing. The full-time squad of 19 looked lean and slender, fitter and quicker than I've witnessed before.

The fact that Dan Norton has exceeded the previous top fitness test results of more celebrated England fifteens players, surpassing the record held until now by Jonny Wilkinson, proved the point.

Throughout the summer, with only a couple of weeks break, the England Sevens squad have gathered three days every week at the Lensbury Club in Teddington, and that after the rounds of the FIRA Euro Sevens, and more recently for a triangular warm-up contest in Alicante with Spain and France.

And I can only imagine that the other 14 core sides around the world have put in a similarly gruelling preparation. It's a far cry from the early days of IRB Sevens, when the majority of nations included only amateur players. Now most the squads are made up of full-time professionals and new and experienced specialist Sevens coaches are coming on board.

Former England coach and captain Mike Friday is now in charge of Kenya. Andres Romagnoli, former captain of Argentina Sevens and a Cup winner in Los Angeles, has taken over as Puma Sevens head coach, while another Englishman, former Sevens star Phil Greening, is the new man in charge in Scotland.

Finely tuned and raring to go

Few nations now enter the HSBC Sevens World Series without pre-season tournaments, which are also growing in stature and regularity. For the first time, Wales joined South Africa in the Middleburg event. Spain and Kenya took part in the Safaricom Sevens in Nairobi. Portugal, Scotland, Wales, Spain, France and England were all involved in the FIRA European Grand Prix circuit in the summer, whilst Gold Coast hosts Australia competed in the Oceania Sevens with Samoa and Tonga, and also the Noosa and Sunshine beach Sevens.

And of course this summer saw additional Rugby World Cup Sevens qualifying events in addition to those, Canada and USA succeeding at the NACRA championship in Ottowa and Portugal, Spain, France and Scotland winning through along with Georgia in Europe at the Algarve Sevens. There's still more to come in Asia and South America too - a packed calendar of Sevens!

And what of the squads named for the Gold Coast?.. Unlike England, who keep a remarkable continuity of personnel - no new recruits for their visit to Gold Coast - many other nations are starting out at this point in time with fresh talent, notably the top two teams last season.

Defending Gold Coast champions Fiji have no fewer than eight newcomers in their line-up. No Cakau, no Nayacalevu, Matawalu, Talebula nor Lutumailagi - who knows what's in the store? Likewise, with the ITM Cup taking precedence in New Zealand, the newly branded 'All Black Sevens' are transformed. Captain fantastic DJ Forbes is back, and with him Tim Mikkelson, Tomasi Cama and Lote Raikabula, but six players will be making their debut.

Scotland and Spain have five new to the circuit; Kenya and Argentina four each. South Africa only name two debutants in what looks a really strong side. So no predictions here, although I reckon England's familiarity and experience should serve them well.

So the inaugural event of the 14th season of what began as the IRB Sevens is upon us. But, given the new structure of the Series, the new professional approach of all the core teams, the ever-increasing specialist talents of top Sevens athletes who are now building towards Rio, this has the feel of a new beginning.

Sevens is a form of rugby that guarantees excitement every time, and that's primarily down to these players' fitness prowess and incredible ball skills. Some leading internationals in the 15-a-side game may well fancy a crack at Rio in four years time, but without significant experience and exposure of Sevens at this top level I think they might be in dreamland.