James Rodwell has seen rugby sevens go from a largely part-time distraction to a full-on, dedicated professional pursuit with its own, thriving circuit.
As the most-capped England sevens player of all time prepares for his retirement at the end of the season, he looks back at a stellar career in which he was an integral member of the Team GB Olympic team who won silver at the Rio Olympics. He has also been a consistent player on the HSBC World Series circuit since 2008 and has represented his country on 91 occasions.
In January he became the most capped player in the history of the sport, winning his 90th cap during the World Series in Hamilton. He announced his retirement last week.
Speaking to the RFU just minutes after announcing his decision to walk away from the game, Rodwell said: “It’s been an amazing journey from when I first started playing sevens – I would never have imagined that I’d pull on an England jersey this many times. The pleasure that I still get from representing my country is incredible, and it’s still a huge honour to wear the England shirt.
England Sevens record holder @James_Rodwell announces his retirement at the end of the season 👏🌹
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) May 3, 2019
“The game of sevens has grown so much in the 12 years that I have been involved. It began with part-time players coming together for tournaments and now has players on fully professional contracts and is about to feature in the Olympics for the second time – I’m very proud to have been a part of that.”
The 34-year-old has transcended the sport within England, and was an integral part in their World Cup Sevens runs to the final in 2013 and 2018, losing on both occasions to New Zealand. He also played a crucial role in the bronze medal which England won in the Commonwealth Games last year.
His love for rugby stretches back to the first time he played for Tring RFC aged seven, before amazingly being unable to make the grade for the rugby team in his first year at Birmingham University. He continued to play club rugby for Moseley; where he was named the U21 Player of the Year in 2004-05, before picking up the players’ player of the year and supporters’ player of the year in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons respectively.
— BîgPîtã 🙈 (@big_pita) May 3, 2019
After deciding to continue playing rugby, he was led to a career in the sevens version of the game. He made his national team debut aged 23 in a fixture against the United States of America in Dubai. He was offered his first professional contract with the sevens team two years later ahead of the Delhi Commonwealth Games.
This season he has played a vital role in the progression of the men’s and women’s team after joining the coaching set-up.
Rodwell admitted that he didn’t take his decision lightly. He continued: “I have reached that point where I have managed to play in a lot of tournaments and have been fortunate enough to travel the world to do what I love for such a long period, I guess I am getting to that point where my body is a little bit slower. My heart still says I can play, but my brain is telling me to slow down a bit.”
@James_Rodwell Congratulations on a stratospheric career. Was a huge pleasure watching you over the years.. of course my highlight was watching you and the team here… best wishes with your future ventures. pic.twitter.com/IBckI5hbnR
— Paul Cox (@CoxioRio2016) May 3, 2019
However, his season isn’t over just yet, and he could sign off from the game by ensuring that England can qualify for the Olympic Games in Japan next year. With the automatic places effectively out of reach, it is expected that the Lions will go all-out for the success in the European Qualification process over the summer.
Ben Ryan was the man who spotted the potential of Rodwell before the former led Fiji to Olympic gold against Great Britain in 2016. Ryan posted an emotional message on Twitter. He said: “I came across James coaching England Counties & when I went to England 7s, I took a punt he would go well. I picked him, and he’s been there ever since. He’s had a brilliant career and been a superb ambassador for England Rugby. Enjoy your next chapter.”
But could Rodwell follow his footsteps into coaching?
“There is a chance I could still be involved in a coaching capacity, but I haven’t decided anything,” he said. “The big difference with the women’s was that I wasn’t in competition with any of them to play. It has been really nice to get to know them on the field as well. Hopefully, the last few months will be good as well.”
Rodwell continued to share his gratitude for Ryan, for the chance he was given by being spotted. Rodwell said: “As well as my family there are a lot of people that I have to thank for my career over the years – going all the way back to my school, university and Moseley coaches who believed in me, before the likes of Ben Ryan, Russell Earnshaw and Simon Amor who have all given me so much support within the England Sevens programme.”
Head of England Sevens Amor was full of admiration when reflecting on Rodwell’s career. He said: “I have been so fortunate to have worked with Rodders for almost six years and it has been a real pleasure to coach someone who’s not only so detailed in his thinking and so knowledgeable about the game but who has continually strove to be truly the best player he can be.
“He is an incredibly committed and passionate player who has always put the game of sevens at the very heart of his thinking at all times, but more than that, he is an outstanding person.”
Dan Norton, who could break Rodwell’s overall cap record, was full of praise for his teammate. Speaking in an heartwarming video to celebrate Rodwell’s career, he said: “It’s incredible. He’s been there from the start of my journey to today. He’s a great player on the field and a great bloke off it.
“He plays with his heart, a lot of passion and gives his all. He has an endless skill set, and I’m jealous of some of the stuff that he can do.”
Armor continued in the praise and the impact that he has had on the sport. He concluded: “It is difficult to overstate the impact he has had in the England Sevens programme, but unfortunately retirement comes to everyone in the end – but reaching 91 tournaments is a testament to the exceptional athlete he is.”
Main photo credit: England Rugby, Facebook, Flickr