The importance of having match winners in your squad in a sport like rugby sevens cannot be understated. All too often the 14-minute games are decided by a solitary score, making the difference between success and failure finer than in the vast majority of other sports.
One such match winner is Dan Norton, whose electric pace on the wing for England has seen him become one of the most dangerous players on the sevens circuit.
Norton’s finest season so far came in 2012-13 as he ran in a staggering 52 tries, smashing the English record that had been set by teammate Mat Turner the year before. With 37 and 32 tries in the previous two campaigns respectively, Norton is now behind only the legendary Ben Gollings in the all-time England list of try scorers.
The 26-year-old is likely to be key to England’s hopes of claiming a medal at this summer’s Commonwealth Games, and he spoke to Sports Mole about his team’s chances in Glasgow.
You were part of the squad that finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games four years ago in Delhi. Does that experience spur you on to ensure that you go one better and at least medal in Glasgow?
“I think looking back, finishing fourth in Delhi was a sour taste in the mouth. It was annoying the way we finished because we were in a good position playing against South Africa, we were up with about two minutes to go and we just fell away a bit.
“It was a bit disappointing the way it ended, but at the same time looking back it was a good learning curve. Being able to be in the village and everything has put us into a better position now for the guys who have been re-selected.”
So, if fourth place would be a disappointment again this year, what is your minimum goal going into these Games?
“I think the way you have to look at it is to take every game as you can. You can’t get too excited by looking towards where you’re going to finish or even who you might be playing against because the way sevens works it can change so quickly. We’ve seen it on both sides throughout the whole of the season. We were up, we were down, how games can change and swing.
“Day one is literally winning all three games and getting ourselves into the best position we can for day two. That’s when you can start analysing how you’re playing, who you’re playing against and trying to get everything you’ve learned over the whole of the season, over the last 12 weeks leading into the Commonwealth Games and just give it your all over that last day.”
Looking at day one, then, you start with matches against Sri Lanka and Uganda – two teams that are something of a mystery to England?
“It is an unknown quantity and all we can worry about is ourselves and putting ourselves into the best position to win those three games on the first day. We’ll do as much work as we can on ourselves and get ourselves into the best condition mentally and physically and that’s going to be a big part of the weekend as well.”
You finish the opening day against arch-rivals Australia in what is expected to be a match where the winner will claim top spot in Group D.
“That’s going to be the last game of the day so by then we hopefully will be playing how we want to be playing and showing our identity to everyone around. When we worry about ourselves and play our best rugby then that is when we’ll be causing most teams headaches. We’ve got two games to get ourselves into good condition before we come up against a strong Australian team, and that’s where it’s going to be a case of pushing it. That’s kind of a mini-final for us.”
In terms of build-up to the tournament, England won their third consecutive Moscow Sevens title recently. How has that helped your preparations for the Commonwealth Games?
“A few boys who had played throughout the season were rested and that was a big tournament for us to send guys who hadn’t played over the last two weeks. We played well in parts â again there are areas to improve on â but it has put us in a good place moving forward into this weekend and playing in Allianz Park and then moving forward into the Commonwealth Games.
“We’re all feeling really fit and healthy and confident that we can put down a good stick and show Team England and the rest of England how proud we are to play for our country and to play for our shirts.”
Moscow has been a happy hunting ground for England over recent years, but wins in Glasgow have been a bit more elusive. You won the plate there this year and reached the cup final in 2012 but are yet to win the main competition since the Scotland Sevens switched cities. Do you think your past record there could play a part this summer?
“I don’t think the past will play a part because the tournament is so different to how we normally travel and move around and everything with the World Series. It’s a nice feeling that it is a one-off tournament and you can literally just throw everything into that one tournament.
“That’s what we’ve been planning on doing over the last 12 weeks, getting ourselves into a better position, understanding the dynamics of how the village is going to work, how the Games are going to work each day and just throwing everything into those two days.”
The captain, Tom Mitchell, is coming off the back of a magnificent season as the top points scorer on the IRB World Series circuit by some distance. Is he central to England’s hopes of a gold medal in Glasgow?
“As soon as he got the captaincy he’s just grown and grown as a player both on and off the field. He’s been leading on the field and off the field by his performances and just controlling matters off the field as well. He’s done really well but, at the same time, most of the other players – like Mike Ellery and Phil Burgess â have shown we’ve got a good balance throughout the whole of the squad.
“There are big guys and quick guys and guys who are always doing their job really well and will grow and get better each day. That’s our aim â to get better and better each day and keep moving forwards.”
Even with such a strong and well-balanced squad, England would be underdogs should they come up against New Zealand. They have won every single gold medal and not lost a match at the Commonwealth Games since the sport was first included in 1998, while they are also the reigning IRB World Series and World Cup champions. Is there any danger of it being a one-horse race in Glasgow?
“They’ve shown this year how there is competition from other teams – South Africa have pushed them really close. But credit to New Zealand, they’ve been at the top now for a while and they’ve been the team that everyone has been chasing in all the major tournaments â the World Cups, the Commonwealth Games â over the last few years.
“They’ve shown how ruthless they are this year being pushed pretty close by Fiji and South Africa. But at the same time we’ve shown that we can beat them this year, other teams have beaten them and everybody has beaten everybody this year. In sevens these days the game can change so quickly from a refereeing decision to the bounce of a ball, something as silly as that.
“It’s going to be the team that mentally turns off and on throughout the whole of the day that is going to be the best come the final. They are the ones who will have recovered best and New Zealand have been the best team over the last few years at being able to switch off and on and get their performances spot on for each game.”
You mentioned there that all the top teams have been beating each other this year. Does knowing that you are capable of winning against the best give you extra confidence going into the Commonwealth Games?
“It has been a bit annoying the way things are. We’ve beaten everybody and they’ve beaten us. I think we’ve closed the gap over the last two tournaments. We’ve shown our potential a bit more and been a bit more consistent in our performances as well, and that’s the main performance indicator for us â being consistent throughout the entire game. It’s not about two or three minutes in between the game, it’s about the 14-minute spell and exerting ourselves on the opposition.
“Over in Moscow and in the last two tournaments in Glasgow and London we’ve shown more of how we want to be playing more of the time. Moving forward to the Commonwealth Games, that is what we want to be doing over day one, moving onto day two, and that’s going to put us in the best position to be vying for a gold medal.”
Switching the attention forward a few years – rugby sevens will become an Olympic sport for the first time in 2016. As someone who has been around the sport for a while now, have you noticed more of a buzz around sevens recently?
“Yeah, massively. The sport has been improving and growing over the last two or three years since the inclusion in the Olympics. A lot more teams are putting a lot more funding into their programs â you can see that with the smaller teams that have been growing and the gap has been getting smaller and smaller from the top to the bottom as well.
“Everybody is able to beat everybody and it just shows how amazing the sport is growing into. A lot more people are taking notice of the sport and how competitive and how easy it is to watch on the eye and how exciting it is to be involved in as well. Coming into the Olympics we’re hopefully going to be in a great position.”
Is Rio 2016 already in the back of your mind, then?
“It is a long shot but you need to have long-term goals to keep driving you and to get you off the floor from all the fitness and keep pushing you forwards. It is in the back of your head. I think people around the age of mine â I’ll be 28 by the time of the Olympics â it’s something that everybody wants to be involved in, regardless how old you are.
“But for the time being it is about concentrating on the Commonwealth Games for the team over the next few weeks, and then moving into next season it is literally about being the best team we can be as England, and that is the best way to put our hands up for the Olympics.”
England will play all three group matches at Ibrox Stadium on July 26 before the knockout rounds begin the following day. You can follow their progress with Sports Mole.
Interview: England Rugby Sevens" Dan Norton