For many people, the thought of English rugby lives and dies exclusively with the 15-a-side format of the game. It is the dominant one in terms of participation, infrastructure and fan base, and also one that has provided some of England‘s greatest sporting moments over the years.
Jonny Wilkinson firing over a drop-goal in the last minute of the 2003 World Cup final against Australia to win England the Webb Ellis trophy will live long in the memory, while players before and after the now-retired fly-half have also captured the nation’s attention.
However, this summer will showcase a format not so well known as the Commonwealth Games provide another chance for the excitement of rugby sevens to permeate the mainstream. Seven-minute halves with seven players on each side on a full-size pitch means points, tries and drama galore.
One of England’s key players in their quest for gold this summer will be Tom Powell, participating in his second Commonwealth Games, and Sports Mole caught up with the Sheffield-born forward.
England finished fourth in the IRB World Series this year, so are your sights set on going one better and picking up a medal in Glasgow?
“Definitely. In terms of previous history we came fourth in Delhi [four years ago] as well, so it’s definitely unfinished business. We’re obviously going up there to come top, that’s what we’ve been training for, that’s what we’ve been putting a lot of hard work in to get.
“Obviously with Sevens anything can happen â the bounce of a ball â but we’ve put all of the preparation in to make sure that everything we can control is controlled. Hopefully it will go well, the boys are really excited about it and I can’t wait to get up there again.”
So you’re going into the Games with gold as the target, rather than just picking up a medal?
“Yeah, I think most teams will be doing that, to be honest. Any team that is being realistic, you don’t go up there planning to come third, you go up there wanting to win things and that’s exactly what we want to do. There are a lot of things that need to go our way and we’ve got to perform very well, but I’m confident that if we hit our straps and get everything right on the pitch, get that bit of luck when you need it, then we’ll be there or thereabouts.”
To win the gold you will likely have to find a way past reigning IRB World Series and World Cup champions New Zealand. No team has ever beaten them at the Commonwealth Games so far. Can anyone stop them this time around?
“Certainly they’re the formidable team. They’ve never lost a Commonwealth Games game, played really well this season, but as we’ve proven on a couple of occasions we’ve turned them over. At Twickenham most recently and before that was in Tokyo. Having said that we lost to them in the Hong Kong final, so it is fine margins at this level.
“We know they’re a very good team and we’ve got a lot of respect for them and the way they go about things, but on our day we’re confident that we can pick up a result against them. It’s a two-day tournament and it will be the team that deals with the pressure, handles the whole situation that is going on with the Commonwealth Games best and can translate that into performances on the pitch that will come out on top. Hopefully through the preparation we’ve put in we’ll be able to do that.”
You mentioned that win over the All Blacks at Twickenham in May – is that an experience you will look to draw upon if you come up against them in Glasgow?
“Certainly. It may not have been said but it’s in the back of people’s minds that they’re not an unbeatable team. They’re humans like everybody else and I think it’s more about focusing on what we can do. We’ll certainly look at the opposition and what they like to do and how they play, but it’s about looking at what we can control and how we go about things on the pitch. Once we’ve done that, I’m confident that the result will take care of itself.”
You face Australia in your final game of day one in a match that is likely to determine the winner of Group D. How key is that encounter to England’s chances in the tournament as a whole?
“Personally I think it’s more of the whole build-up through day one. It’s going to be about dealing with the unusual nature of the Commonwealth Games, which is obviously a multi-sport event.
“It’s going to be about the pressure of the events and the distractions around the village before we get there, and then focusing on game one, getting that out the way, getting our performance in, getting through and then the final game will be a tough game against Australia. Whichever way the result goes we’ll go into day two with the same mindset â trying to focus on our own performance and pick up the wins and make sure we’re in the medal matches before the end.
“Having said that, we played Australia last time round in Delhi last game of the day and beat them, only to come in fourth, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you win that game you’re going to go on and do really well next day. It’s one of things that you’ve got to monitor on the day and see how it goes.”
How different is the Commonwealth Games to an event in the World Series?
“It’s completely different from my perspective. Once you’re on the pitch it’s the same, because you’re on a rugby pitch it doesn’t matter [what the tournament is]. In terms of being in the athletes’ village, where there are elite athletes from all over the world competing in all variety of different sports, it’s a hugely exciting time and there are a lot of things going on that we wouldn’t normally get to see.
“We normally share a hotel with 16 other rugby sevens teams, we see some amazing places in the world but we know about that side of things, we’ve been there, we’ve experienced it. The Commonwealths come round once every four years, it’s completely different. Combined with that, the momentum gathered from London 2012 into another home nations event I think will be fantastic and the support behind Team England and Team Scotland will be an amazing thing to experience. The boys are really looking forward to getting up there and getting on with it.”
Do you think being so close to home turf will prove to be an advantage for you?
“Yeah, certainly. Just from a logistical point of view, we don’t have the jet lag to contend with which we normally would do, we’re used to the weather over here however it decides to fall in July and, in terms of support, there is going to be a lot of people travelling up and family and friends will be around, so it’s one of those once in a lifetime opportunities that I think will be amazing for everybody involved.”
As well as Australia, England will face Sri Lanka and Uganda in Group D, two teams not in the World Series. Is there any chance of a shock from those two minnows?
“There is always the chance, that’s the beauty of sport, you never know what’s going to happen. They’re certainly developing nations, I saw Sri Lanka a little bit in Hong Kong in the second tier tournament this year and they certainly know how to play the game, so we’ll be wary of all the teams and be respectful of each team before we play them.
“We need the due diligence to make sure we’re in the right place on the pitch. Hopefully we can show the difference in where we’re at in the program to where they’re developing from, but as I mentioned it is sport so anything can happen. Fair play to those guys for getting involved and hopefully they’ll go well, but not too well against us!”
One of the most notable things in the sport over the past few years is how quickly the smaller nations have improved. Kenya have come on leaps and bounds, while Canada reached the cup final in the Glasgow Sevens earlier this year. Why do you think that is?
“The beauty of Sevens is that you don’t need the infrastructure of 15s clubs throughout the country to really build and develop top quality players. You need probably 12-15 top quality players to be able to compete, and then somebody that can bring them together and get them to play in a structure or buy into a structure. Once you have that, you’ve got a very dangerous team.
“That is certainly what we’ve seen from the Kenyans. They’re natural athletes, they’ll run all day, they’re big, strong, powerful men, and then they’ve had very good guidance from Mike Friday and Paul Treu. They’ve provided that structure for them to build around and we’ve certainly seen them develop as a nation, which we haven’t seen on the 15s side of things. I think that’s the great thing about sevens, it gives some of the smaller countries an opportunity to compete on the world stage in a sport that is not necessarily historically the number one sport in their country.”
One team that won’t be in Glasgow is Fiji after they were initially banned from competing for political reasons. As a big rival for medals but one of the most entertaining teams around, do you see their absence as a good or a bad thing?
“I think for the Commonwealth Games it would be great to have Fiji back involved. Rugby sevens is their national sport so it’s a shame about that. You always want to test yourself against the best players in the world and they certainly perform on a weekly basis in the World Series. So it’s a shame they’re not there, but for fully understandable reasons. Hopefully come the next one in 2018 they’ll be back involved and obviously we have the Olympics before that so they can compete in what is a fantastic event.”
With Fiji out of the picture, who do you think are your biggest rivals for the gold?
“New Zealand will be there. South Africa have named a strong team and it will be interesting to see how they go with the inclusion of some 15s guys. Australia are always going to be tough to beat, and then you’ve got the home nations â Scotland, Wales â which will be fantastic games if we get to play them. There are probably six or seven teams competing for the top spot I’d say, but that’s what you want in these events. You don’t want a one-horse race, you want people striving to be the top, and you get some great matches from that.”
The success of sevens at the Commonwealth Games has helped the sport become an Olympic event for the first time in 2016. Is there extra excitement surrounding the game now because of that breakthrough?
“It’s on the horizon, but I think it’s probably a little too far away at the moment for a lot of the boys to really be focusing on because we’re not athletes where you’re looking in four-year cycles. We’re focused very much on the next season. It’s about delivering that season, so I think at the moment it’s a little too far in the distance. But it is in the back of everyone’s minds and they are aware that it is coming up fairly shortly.”
Head coach Simon Amor has been there and done it as one of the members of the 2006 England side that won silver, which is still their only podium finish at the Commonwealth Games. Has he drawn on that experience to help his players?
“He hasn’t mentioned anything of his experiences when he was there, but the way he is coaching I’m guessing he’s learned stuff along the way and he’s passing that on without letting us know consciously about it. His CV in rugby sevens is second to none. He’s pretty much won everything there is to win and the boys fully respect that.
“He understands the pressures and what goes on at the Commonwealth Games and is preparing the boys that haven’t been there for it and reminding the guys that have been there about what’s going to happen. Hopefully we can draw on his experience and his success, and we can translate into performances on the pitch.”
England weren’t able to win any events in the World Series this year, but they did pick up their third consecutive Moscow Sevens title recently. How important is it to have got that under your belt?
“It was certainly a handy run-out because probably eight of us hadn’t played since [the London Sevens in May], so it was a two-month layoff and you want to get out there and have your first hit before the main competition. Moscow was used to get us back into the swing of things, get used to the six games over a weekend and we built slowly through the tournament and I think we’ve come away feeling pretty confident in what we’re doing. We then went on to a warm-weather camp in Portugal where we were pushed very hard, so the guys are very tired at the moment but we know the recovery is coming and the hard work is being put in at the moment to make sure we can reap the rewards down the line.”
You are one of only four members in the squad to have played at the Commonwealth Games before. What is your role in the team as one of the more experienced players?
“I guess to pass on as much knowledge as possible and be there to chat to people. We’re a very tight-knit squad, everyone is looking out for each other the whole time and it’s a very open environment. People can ask questions, we’ll often go and have a coffee and just discuss things. If I can help just talk through people what is it going to be like or what to expect then that will help.
“In terms of on the pitch it is slightly different again. There are three or four of us who will try to take hold of situations and decide what’s being done and help Tom Mitchell, the captain, out. That’s the same in a World Series, it goes on all year. We’re quite used to the structure and how it works. It’s not about just the captain running the ship, it’s about having lieutenants and things to help him out. It’s the same with Simon, he’s there telling us what to do and then we can help facilitate and pass on the information then.”
You mentioned Tom Mitchell there. He is coming off the back of an incredible season as the runaway top points scorer in the World Series – performances which earned him a nomination for IRB World Sevens Player of the Year. How important is he to England’s chances of success in Glasgow?
“He’s been fantastic. He’s been the standout player for us this year and I’m sure he’ll do fantastic in Glasgow. He’s a great leader and he has been great on the pitch but, away from that, you look at some of the other players who have performed on the pitch. We’ve had Mike Ellery as a standout performer earlier in the year, Dan Bibby has been fantastic all year, Phil Burgess another newcomer.
“Combined with that we’ve got Dan Norton, who has been World Player of the Year before. There are names after names, we’re not reliant on one person. As well as he’s played this year, Glasgow is a great opportunity for people to showcase what they can do as well, and what the team can do, which is more important.”
Powell and the rest of the England squad will play all three group games at Ibrox Stadium on July 26 before the various competitions enter the knockout phase on July 27.
Interview: Tom Powell