Rugby: Uncommon wealth of the sevens game

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IT IS a great shame that the Commonwealth Games sevens tournament being played in Kuala Lumpur this weekend doesn't have a more powerful presence from the British Isles. Scotland and Ireland are not represented at all and the English and Welsh teams are nothing like as strong as they could be. I am not knocking the boys who are out there. There are some excellent players among them, including my friends Scott Gibbs for Wales and Chris Sheasby for England, and I hope they do well. But they are up against the full might of the southern hemisphere countries who are always wise enough to pay the greatest respect to sevens rugby.

Admittedly, the Games are being staged at the start of the British season, the worst possible time for us, and we've had the most chaotic summer in history. Wales would have liked to send a more experienced team and were very annoyed when Robert Howley pulled out through injury, but none of our unions made special provision for ensuring we selected strong and well-prepared squads.

But there's nothing new in this attitude. We pay lip-service to the value of sevens but do nothing to make sure we take full advantage of the contribution this form of rugby can make. It is true that the arrival of professionalism has brought new priorities but we were neglecting sevens before that. When I was a young player, sevens seemed much more important and played a big part in preparing for a new season. In Wales, August tournaments at places like Aberaeron and Cwmtawe were very hotly contested and watched by large crowds. They were far preferable to pre-season friendlies.

I can fully sympathise with the feelings of Sheasby who is in Malaysia as captain of England's promising but raw squad and who has been complaining about the low priority now given to international sevens.

Sheasby was a member of the England team which won the World Cup sevens in 1993. As he so rightly points out, this is the only world event England have ever won. I agree with him that we are guilty of ignoring their importance. The southern hemisphere countries don't make that mistake and I fear that our boys will pay a painful penalty for that this weekend.

Perhaps I'm biased because sevens played such a big part in my own development. Playing against southern hemisphere teams in the 1985 Sydney Sevens was one of the highlights of my career. Wales had a make-shift team with a wing-forward on the wing and without a specialist hooker, a vital position in sevens. But we gave a good account of ourselves before losing to Australia in the semi-finals and I had the pleasure of scoring three tries in 14 minutes against the All Blacks and being voted player of the tournament.

That did so much for my confidence at the time and I played sevens wherever and whenever I could. In fact, I'm still playing it. I appeared for a pub team in a charity sevens at Crickhowell two Sundays ago and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Young players today don't seem to have the same enthusiasm for it but that may be because they don't get encouraged to play sevens as part of their development. It's a form of rugby that asks a lot of your fitness, stamina and skill but, more importantly, improves ball-winning ability and decision-making.

You can spot a good player in sevens far easier than in the 15-a-side game and there's no better or quicker way to improve the standard of British rugby than to introduce more sevens into the calender. As usual, they are years ahead of us in this respect Down Under. Not only do they love sevens, they recognise what it can do to their playing strengths. In Fiji, of course, it's a religion and so many of the New Zealand and Australian stars had their big break in sevens.

You only have to look at the teams they are putting out this weekend to realise the importance they place on it. The All Blacks are fielding Christian Cullen, Eric Rush, Jonah Lomu and Joeli Vidiri in a fearsome squad - but they always do in a big tournament no matter where it is held or at what time of the year.

Up until last year, David Campese was employed to develop sevens in Australia and take a squad all round the world. It was a bold move that paid off and there are plenty of experienced players in this country who could do the same job.