Sydney is shining and the Sevens world is preparing for a mammoth 2018.
The next seven months includes the remaining eight legs on the HSBC World Series but interjects a Commonwealth Games, up the (very long) road from Sydney in the Gold Coast, as well as the San Francisco based Rugby World Cup Sevens in July.
As a player it was always a brilliant time of the year to have played a ferocious first couple of tournaments in early-to-mid December. To be playing in the baking heat in Dubai and South Africa over the fortnight and to then come back to the bitter cold, Christmas-based festive build up and home comforts was always wonderfully juxtaposed.
However, the high standards of professionalism, and a degree of fear of lost fitness, means the player will be coming in refreshed having enjoyed a needed break, and integrated the removal of Christmas guilt with a punishing, unforgiving and at times brutal training schedule.
The cold, often frozen, January mornings were throat burning and somewhat bizarre knowing that you would soon be playing on the pitch back in the mid-to-late 30’s celsius.
The long haul
The Australasia legs are without doubt the most taxing for preparation, recovery and performance. For any traveller to have surpassed six or seven time zones would know the effects of the dreaded jet lag, but to go across 11, and to do so as an elite performance team is a very difficult ask.
The strength and conditioning teams come into their own, and prepare detail to an extraordinary level knowing the players will benefit from any percentage of improvement. Gradual light exposure, training times and even bed times will have been adjusted for a number of days, and on the flight food will be pre-prepared, supplements sourced and technology maximised (such as in-flight masks) to make sure the plans and protocols were executed.
That’s not cricket
I have been slightly tentative as an Englishman in Sydney post the Ashes, but this weekend is set for a very different showing. With the cricket theme continuing, England’s Jonny Bairstow - whom I can vouch for as a good rugby player too, presented the England men’s team with their shirts which was well received.
However, this weekend it’s all about the rugby in Sydney as 16 teams for the men and 12 teams for the women will be competing as a combined event over three days, which is a first, ensuring some quality action in a weekend that celebrates Australia Day this Friday.
A player I’m looking forward to seeing back in an England sevens shirt is Mike Ellery. His experiences with Saracens in the Premiership and Europe will have given him a physicality boost, which was already a strength, and as a natural athlete he will be a very impactful figure for the team who are looking hugely experienced and settled. Dan Bibby returning from injury changes the style of play, with his almost psychic link with Tom Mitchell set to flourish and bring others into the game.
England’s pool places them against the South Africans who are sat up top with New Zealand, who are also looking very impressive, but the All Blacks Sevens have to navigate through a ferocious Pool A with Fiji and Samoa. Elsewhere, Pool D (Canada, USA, Australia and Scotland) is highly competitive with four teams that can all beat each other. This means England have a wonderful route to progress in what is a brilliant tournament.
Women’s woe needs to end
The snaked pattern of seeded pool draws for the women means that if you fail to make the top six of the previous leg you are in dangerous waters. Eighth place for England in Dubai means they have the tough task of beating the fifth-seeded New Zealand team, a very rare statement, and the ever improving USA team to progress. Some task, but they are most definitely capable of it.