Former England Sevens captain Rob Vickerman looks ahead to a huge year for the sport and previews the forthcoming HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series leg in Dubai.
This weekend takes me back out into Dubai, a city that connects the World and this weekend hosts the 2018/9 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in its 20th season.
There is perhaps not a worse feeling for many sports players than the dreaded pre-season fitness session. The guilt-edged off-season now a memory you wish to have enjoyed slightly less, knowing just how horrible the feeling was during the moment of hard running and conditioning set by the coach. Now imagine a Sevens pre-season, for three months.
Sevens players are regularly setting new standards for fitness and conditioning and you only have to watch the games in the last couple of seasons to know this has resulted in a transformation in how the game is played. Faster and stronger teams, longer periods of play, less errors and dramatic moments to the last moment of the game are the result of the hard work put in during the off-season by the men and women on the HSBC World Sevens Series.
The players are now being clocked for speed through analytical software on the broadcast so we can see first hand just how effective the sprint training has been for the teams. For the record, Perry Baker has tipped the scale at 38kph (23.6 mph), with a significant number in the 37kph club.
The underlying conversations to the build up for Dubai, which also featured heavily in the women’s first leg in Glendale, is that this year's series end with qualification for Tokyo 2020 for the top four men and women’s teams. This is huge. Not only is this a massive achievement for the teams to end in the top four to automate their place and therefore planning, but there is also significance for the teams in a continental capacity, as there is a significant butterfly effect.
The qualification process means that once the top four are secured, as well as Japan as hosts, the next tier of qualification is then down to the respective regions of Europe, Oceania, North and South America, Asia and Africa.
This is where the highly competitive regions such as Europe get very intriguing. Team GB, represented by England in the qualification process as highest seeds, fall into a grouping of France, Russia, Spain, Ireland, Germany.
Therefore, if England finish in the top four, it will become easier for the likes of France or Ireland to qualify, but if England are not top four, it is then a much tougher prospect.
The final opportunity for Olympic qualification will be at the World Rugby Olympic repecharge in which 12 teams compromising of the next to highest ranked teams based on the aforementioned regionals. The whole process is clearly met with a wonderful amount of excitement and trepidation, and spurs teams on to compete on the Series as best as they can, for every single available point.
First day at School
Dubai also presents a chance to see the next breakthrough players on the Series, which as a commentator increases the levels of preparation, but as a fan of the sport is one of the best bits. Every single year a few players break through and it is mesmerising to think that only a few months ago many of them were still at school.
The calibre of young players coming through is a continual upward trend, with the likes of Australia’s Ben O’Donnell, a ‘rookie season’ last year ending with him being nominated as Player of the Year.
Brave and committed were words used for England’s men and women last year, but it would be fantastic to be able to prefix their performance with ‘clinical’ and ‘ruthless.’
For both teams last year some pivotal moments against the leading teams in the quarterfinals were the undoing of their progression and success. The men won two Bronze and a Silver medal to cement a fifth place, but the women struggled to gain a top six position in any tournament, and were eight in Glendale.
Both know there is pressure on this year more than most, but that can often bring out the best performances. The Rugby World Cup silver medal was a testament as to what we can expect from the men’s team - who always rise to the big moment, of which there will be many this year.
There are seldom better places to play as English Rugby players than a heavy ex-pat community such as Dubai, with 50,000 fans in the searing heat all hoping for England to reclaim their success so often seen in Dubai.