The idea of a Great Britain squad to replace England, Scotland and Wales in the HSBC World Sevens Series is an exciting prospect for some – including the likes of former Fiji and England coach Ben Ryan – but it is hard to see the Welsh and Scots readily giving up their development programmes to become part of a unified team.
Ryan told planet7s during the Hong Kong Sevens that, from a performance perspective, only a Great Britain team are capable of winning the series while also providing a strong foundation for potential Olympic glory.
For Wales and Scotland, however, the sevens programme appears to be merely a pathway for their national 15s team with a hint of resignation that winning any of the 10 tournaments on the annual circuit is beyond them.
The English Rugby Football Union (RFU), meanwhile, is considering scrapping its sevens programme altogether, according to reports, to save the cash-strapped body money.
Should it happen, it opens the way for the unions to come together for a Great Britain squad. Another real scenario is a world series without England with Wales and Scotland continuing as standalone teams that exist purely as development platforms for their 15s squads.
Ryan joined USA coach Mike Friday – an Englishman – and New Zealand’s Scottish head coach Clark Laidlaw in backing the formation of a Great Britain team.
“I think from a performance point of view, if the home nations are ever going to win the world series, it will be as a combined team,” Ryan told planet7s. “Great Britain as a combined team is the only way to go in terms of the Olympics.
“I know what it’s like wearing an RFU badge going into the premiership clubs trying to get the best talent because there’s often other stuff going on that gets in the way. And if you’re going in as a Great Britain you can attract new sponsors, you can give cash payments to clubs to release younger players.
“It won’t benefit Scotland too much because they’ve only got two pro clubs. They need a third outlet really for their young talent. Unless Great Britain, and they might be able to, say give X amount of spots to Scottish clubs in the training squad, that’s one way perhaps of getting Scotland on board. Because if they don’t do that, Scotland will not vote for Great Britain. I totally understand it from their point of view.”
Wales and Scotland are understandably reluctant to talk about a Great Britain squad because, for the moment, it is only a case of people thinking out loud.
For Wales head sevens coach Richie Pugh, the focus is on fulfilling his task of producing the next generation of players within a Welsh, and not Great Britain, system.
“We’re quite sure what we are as a programme,” Pugh told planet7s. “We are a programme that is about developing future regional and 15s international players and we have a good record of doing that. For us, Great Britain wouldn’t be our model, our model is we’re a development pathway programme within the Welsh 15s structure and that’s what I’ve got to deliver on as a coach.
“The talk of Great Britain, it’s well above me but from my remit as a Welsh coach it’s, like I said, develop these players because they are young boys, 19 and 20 years old, so it is a bit different to other teams on the programme. But they are good rugby players. It’s not about producing world-class sevens players it’s about producing world-class rugby players.”
Pugh said the players themselves have the motivation to perform well on the sevens world circuit but he admitted that the ultimate goal was graduation to the 15s game more than winning on the series.
“It’s difficult. Those sevens players … the way our squad works is we got core players who are sevens specialists and their role is to build those players, those good rugby players, 15s players around them and kick on,” added Pugh. “It’s tough sometimes because they want to aspire to be the No 1 team as individuals but ultimately that’s what our programme is. We’re comfortable with that but it does mean that we’re in these battles at the bottom of the series.”
At the Hong Kong Sevens, Wales caused a sensation when they defeated series leaders the United States in their pool match. However, defeats by Spain and group winners England in Pool D meant they failed to reach the main Cup competition.
The Welsh are 15th in the series on 20 points after seven of 10 tournaments and are bottom among the core teams, which means relegation should they fail to move up by the end of the season.
England are fifth after reaching the quarter-finals in Hong Kong. They are on 90 points, nine behind fourth-placed South Africa with three tournaments left. Only the top four teams after 10 events gain automatic qualification for the Tokyo Olympics.
Scotland are 10th after the Hong Kong Sevens with 55 points, finishing third in Pool A behind South Africa and Samoa. Scotland try-machine Max McFarland declined to be drawn on the future of the country’s sevens team.
“I really can’t comment on that,” he said. “I’m just trying to play the best I can for my country.”
Ryan, who took Fiji to the gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games where they beat Great Britain in the final, said Wales and Scotland could still develop players within a Great Britain structure.
“We have this in England, when you say development,” said Ryan. “It’s only development when you go and win things, it’s not much development when you get pasted every time. And Scotland don’t get pasted, they’ve got a good programme.
“And Wales … it’s really hard for them at the moment because clubs don’t release [the players]. They’ve got good coaches and they’ve got a great training place but they haven’t got the availability of the best players so it’s not worthwhile as a development tool for them.
“But if it’s Great Britain they can still develop two or three players from Wales through the development programme, so it doesn’t stop development just because they are playing under one umbrella.
“It’s the Scottish programme really. Scotland need to get out of it what they want, [and that is] to develop their players.”
Main photo caption: Wales captain Luke Treharne is delighted after victory over USA in Hong Kong (World Rugby)