Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, wonders what a Scottish butcher would have thought of the Olympic sevens tournament and thinks Twickenham should take another look at Ben Ryan.
Seeing the Fiji team toast their triumph on the pitch after their Olympic final sevens battering of Great Britain, in Rio de Janeiro, makes you wonder just what old Ned Haig would have made of it all if he had been around to see it. He would be struggling though because, if was alive, he would celebrating his 158th birthday in December.
The seven-a-side game has come on a bundle in the last few years and came on a couple of bundles recently with its exposure at the world’s biggest sports event.
Millions of television viewers, some of the world’s best athletes on view, New Zealand getting beaten by Japan and Fiji winning their first Olympic medal, of any kind, in any sport.
The Australian women were brilliant, the Fijian men were better, Japan beat the Kiwis – what was not to like? This correspondent has always been slightly suspicious of the motives for getting sevens into the Olympics but once it was there it worked, with knobs on just like the golf did.
Bill Beaumont, chairman of World Rugby and no-one’s idea of a sevens specialist when he was playing, said: “In rugby, we tend to think that we know it all, and you come to events that are far bigger than anything we would normally stage, and to be a part of it has just been fantastic.” Spot on Bill, it was fantastic.
But none of it would have happened without a butcher from Melrose, in Scotland.
Back in 1883, when Melrose RFC were short of a few quid, and Haig was one of the administrators, he thought it would be a good idea to stage a few games on the same day at the club. Bar takings would go through the roof but there was no way they could enough players to turn out in a succession of full-blown games of 15-a-side union. They just did not have enough bodies.
So Haig, in between doling out joints of beef and lamb chops to the locals, thought the best way to go about it was to play a few shortened games and the rest, as they say, is history. As with all good ideas sevens was borne out of necessity as Haig explained.
He said: “Want of money made us rack our brains as to what was to be done to keep the club from going to the wall, and the idea struck me that a football tournament might prove attractive. But as it was hopeless to think of having several games in one afternoon with 15 players on each side, the teams were reduced to seven men.”
Haig was helped out by the fact that the home side beat their biggest rivals, Gala, in the final otherwise it might have been put on the back burner. But the tournament carried on, despite Gala winning it the next year in 1884, and ranks Stellenbosch University, Cape Town’s Hamilton RFC, Irish Wolfhounds and Edinburgh City Police amongst its winners.
The Melrose Sevens are still going strong but sevens did not make the transition to the all-court game it is now immediately. For years it was a pre-season limber up, or a post-season drink-up, and those of us of a certain age can still remember smuggling in barrels of beer for the Middlesex Sevens which was an almighty shindig back in the day.
Chuck in the even more mighty jaunt that the tournament is Hong Kong was and it was easy to write off the sport as hit and giggle, just like we did with Twenty20 cricket when it was invented.
Then, in 1993, England won the first Sevens World Cup at Murrayfield and, even better, they beat Australia 21-17 in the final. The English players had warmed up for the tournament by going on the lash but somehow blew the cobwebs off to lift the trophy with a side, in those amateur days, comprising students, firefighters and soldiers.
For the record the England players who got on the pitch were Adedayo Adebayo, Chris Sheasby, Justyn Cassell, Matt Dawson, Damian Hopley, Tim Rodber, Dave Scully, Andrew Harriman, Nick Beal and Lawrence Dallaglio.
So when you get asked in your local pub quiz which two England players have won two World Cups, you can earn yourself some beer tokens by answering Dallaglio and Dawson.
That should have been the catalyst for sevens to explode but the World Series Sevens did not turn up until 1999 although there were some interesting visitors to Twickenham in 1996 when Wigan rugby league played in the Middlesex Sevens.
Shaun Edwards, Gary Connolly, Henry Paul, Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell, Martin Offiah, Inga Tuigamala and the rest won the tournament handily. They had been professionals for all of their sporting lives whilst their union counterparts were only just getting used to the idea. Maybe sevens was not just an excuse to get hammered after all.
The World Series expanded and players who showed an aptitude for sevens were farmed out on the circuit. It is not the worst gig in the world with tournaments played in places like Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brisbane, Las Vegas and Wellington and someone has got to do it.
But, when rugby was admitted to the Olympics there were rumours that some of the specialists who had travelled the planet playing the game would be jocked off to make way for some off the 15-a-side game’s biggest guns.
You could see the reasoning. If you want to promote a sport to the unconverted you would probably be best advised to get players like Dan Carter in, who most people with even a passing interest in ball games might have heard of.
But it was not so simple. Sevens has changed and is a different game to the one we played when we were hungover students. These blokes are fit and sevens fit is a different fit from 15s fit. Just ask Bryan Habana and Quade Cooper who did not make the South African and Australian sides respectively.
Sonny Bill Williams was the big box office name but he committed to sevens for a season ahead of Rio and was not naïve enough to think he could just rock up and nick a gold medal. As it turned out the All Black got injured in New Zealand’s first game but he had made his point and so had sevens to an audience never imagined by rugby.
The sevens game now has a massive profile, super fit players and is not treated as a jolly-up – at least by the professionals – Old Ned must be wondering just what he has done behind the great meat counter in the sky.
Talking of the Fijian sevens team – they haven’t got a coach anymore. Ben Ryan, the Englishman who helped them to Olympic gold has quit the job but his status as cult hero in the South Sea islands is assured.
Makes you wonder why he has not managed to get a job in England for the last few years.
Back in 2005, Rob Kitson, of the Guardian, wrote a profile on Ryan who was then a 34-year-old former Cambridge University scrum-half and coaching at Newbury.
One of the best quotes that Kitson got from Ryan comes in the last paragraph when the coach says: “I don’t want to start arguing with people, I want to re-educate them. I hate it when people refer to our practices as drills . . . those are for staff sergeants. That type of thinking needs to be torn up, thrown out and incinerated. We’ve won the last World Cup but suddenly we’ve hit a brick wall.” That was probably a bit much for the show-us-your-medals brigade though.
That was 11 years ago, since when Ryan was been in and out of Twickenham as sevens coach before hitching himself to the Fiji bandwagon and turning their uber-talented, but sometimes wayward, players into champions. You don’t have to be from the southern hemisphere to be a good coach and you don’t have to have 100 Test caps to be a good coach. Ryan is neither and he is a good coach.
Eddie Jones said that when he hands over the reins of the England job, after the 2019 World Cup, it is part of his responsibility to make sure he hands them over to an Englishman. It might be worth having a look at Ryan in some capacity. He has been in the building before.