On the weekend of the Emirates Airline Glasgow Sevens, Scottish Rugby unveiled their new director of rugby, Scott Johnson. With the role confirmed he advised the media that he had appointed a new head coach to the Scotland team and that one of his first priorities is to ensure more people play rugby.
Having seen at first hand the relegation of the sevens team to the pre-qualifying tournament at Twickenham can I suggest that Mr Johnson looks to our youngsters and instils in those that seek to play professional rugby that desire, fitness, speed and skill are used as key performance indicators ahead of developing physique and power.
With the SRU having committed to contracting players to play sevens rugby what happens if the team do not qualify for next season? What are the alternatives? Why is there no development sides competing in either the King of the Sevens or the Legacy Sevens Series? These are the questions that Scott Johnson will be required to answer and more importantly put in place a structure that allows the players to compete at sevens that in turn moulds them into XVs players.
I do understand that the physical nature of the game requires players to bulk up and whilst sevens requires a different type of fitness to that of the fifteen a side game, I want to see our most talented 17, 18 and 19 year olds given a chance to compete and train alongside our professional teams whilst given specialist speed and agility sessions. Explosive performance is the new key word. These youngsters do not need a contract but they do need fitness and guidance as they prepare to meet the demands of the modern game.
However in any sport it is pace that sets the great players apart. Now I am not talking pacey wingers here. An explosive hooker or prop is equally as in important as an attacking back three but I will ask you one question. What got Stuart Hogg a place on this summer’s Lions tour? Answer: His pace!
At the time of writing this article (prior to Scotland taking part in the qualifying tournament at Twickenham for the right to secure their core status on the IRB Sevens Circuit next season) I do not believe that Scotland will qualify.
What I saw at the Glasgow Sevens was a team lacking pace and confidence. In Lee Jones and Andrew Turnbull, these guys on their day, are capable of splitting defences but on a soft Scotstoun surface and with the team unable to put away their flyers it was left to South Africans, Justin Geduld and Seabelo Senatla to show how pace is so important in the abbreviated game.
And there is faster. Colins Injera and Willy Ambaka finish well for Kenya whilst Dan Norton from England has lit up many a tournament with his phenomenal speed. And then there is ridiculous fast. Just have a look at Carlin Isles from the USA on You Tube and you’ll see what I mean. The odd thing though is Nick Edwards keeps him out the starting line up!
When Stevie Gemmell took over the helm following Phil Greening’s departure, Scotland responded with back to back quarter final qualification in Wellington and Las Vegas but crucial errors in both the Hong Kong and Tokyo tournaments saw the team slide into the red zone.
I do hope that Scotland perform to their best in the qualifying tournament at Twickenham because they would have a further year to develop on the World Series circuit. Gemmell can then set about a plan to develop a new crop of youngsters with Scott Johnson overseeing the strategy in time for a tilt at the Commonwealth Games. It is time to give players with genuine raw pace to get to grips with the game. James Flemming will surely have another chance and maybe it is time to blood the fringe players such as Lewis Young, Jamie Farndale and Neil Herron. The latter two have been struggling with injury but Farndale has secured his place in the Scotland U20s.
Sean Lineen currently head coach of the Scotland Under 20s has some exciting youngsters under his tutelage including the above mentioned Farndale and when he was appointed he ensured that the team got games under their belt prior to the U20s, 6 Nations Championship. We saw improvement but overall the team needs to be exposed to higher level competition. This summer’s Junior World Championship is being held in Brittany and I would like to see the likes of Rory Hughes and Mark Bennett, who has also shone with Glasgow also given time to develop in the sevens environment.
When you are young, sevens allows you to express your attacking qualities, your fitness and skill. The fact that those skills are magnified means that players learn quickly and sevens is an attractive proposition for player development.
I understand that the IRB are considering running a second division series with promotion and relegation between the top 15 core teams in the main IRB Series and those in the second division. Also in the melting pot is a pan European wide competition similar to the FIRA series that Scotland competed in last summer. It was through this route that Scotland gained qualification to Rugby World Cup Sevens being held in Moscow in June.
If this happens then Scotland will only be able to qualify through this channel prior to stepping up to a further qualification tournament similar to the one held in Twickenham. Only by becoming 1st, 2nd of 3rd in the qualifying tournament will Scotland then re-qualify as a core team so you can see how important that qualification is secured this year otherwise it could be long road back into the top echelons of the sevens game.
With one eye on The Olympics and the anticipated further explosion of the global seven a side game following RIO2016, the IRB are hugely aware of the commercial opportunities and attractiveness that sevens delivers. That in itself feeds the development of the game and whilst some countries may seek to focus purely on sevens each nation has a responsibility to grow the fifteens game.
Finally, touch rugby gives everyone an opportunity to improve their handling skills in the summer months. If Scott Johnson is serious about growing the game then touch exposes players to higher skill levels and he and his cohorts should be all over this sport and speaking with the Scottish Touch Association. In Johnson’s country of birth, touch coaches have been involved in the coaching of the Australian sevens team and as an entry point into the game touch is worth investing in.