Rugby sets off on road to Rio

England's 15-man team aim to win a second World Cup one day but their fitter, faster brethren in sevens are primed to go for gold in 2016

"It is a travelling circus," suggests Rob Vickerman. The bags are packed and he and his England team-mates are ready to run off and join the circus. Roll up, roll up, first stop Queensland's Gold Coast, then Dubai and later comes New Zealand, the US, Hong Kong and Japan before the big top goes up in Glasgow and Twickenham. Four years from now a new destination will be added, the most glamorous of the lot: Rio de Janeiro, where rugby sevens will become an Olympic sport.

However many of Vickerman, England's captain, and his team-mates make it to Rio – where they will wear British jerseys rather than English ones – it will complete an extraordinary journey, not least as they will have clocked up some 320,000 air miles between now and then. England have come a long way in a short time.

They go into this weekend's opening event of the World Series in Australia with the ambition of finishing it ranked No 1 for the first time and following that by winning the World Cup next summer – it is in Moscow, just to add another few hundred miles to the clock.

"If we won one we would be quite happy, if we won neither we would be very disappointed," says Tom Mitchell, who will experience his first season as a full-time professional, having completed student life with an Oxford history dissertation.

For Ben Ryan, England's coach, it is a transformation of ambition that has taken an Olympic cycle to complete. Four years ago Ryan watched his England side beaten in every game at the Adelaide sevens. "We could have got seven lads out of the stadium and they would have given us a good run around," says Ryan. "We were not fit for purpose."

Ryan, a former teacher, returned to Twickenham and told Rob Andrew that was that. Struggling for players and funding, Ryan had had enough. Unknown to him, Andrew too had decided it should be the end of the sevens road for England.

Then came a phone call that was to transform Ryan's professional life. The International Rugby Board became aware England were looking to drop sevens – just as the IRB was assembling its Olympic bid. "Stick with it," the board pleaded – without England the bid might prove irreparably damaged. Three years ago this month the International Olympic Committee voted sevens into the Games, some 85 years after rugby had last been part of the greatest show on earth.

"The Olympic effect did make a big difference," says Ryan. "Across the world it has been a huge change in terms of the interest, the amount of teams that are full-time." Among those who now have full-time squads thanks to the branding of the Olympic rings are Portugal, the Chinese men's and women's teams and the Dutch women, as well as the usual rugby suspects.

There are 16 tier one teams, from New Zealand, winners of nine of the 12 World Series, to Kenya, a fast-developing force, and Spain, another now able to compete with the established rugby nations. Since 1998 sevens has been part of the Commonwealth Games and such has been its success that it is now one of the event's "core" sports. It is expected to be one of the most popular draws in Glasgow in two years' time.

In Glasgow, England, Scotland and Wales will compete as they are. Less clear is how the Olympic set-up will work. The home unions have already met and sought clarification from the IRB; the qualification bid in 2014-15 will be undertaken by all three – if one makes the top four in the World Series or wins European qualification, Britain will be there. The issue then will be how a Britain team will be formed – as with Olympic football, England are likely to take the lead – but that is for the near future in a sport that in recent years has developed almost as quickly as it is played.

Vickerman drew on the travelling circus analogy because the 16 teams journey the world together, setting up camp for little more than a week in one country before packing up and moving on again. In another sense they are more Globetrotters than circus act: it is fast, furious and often free-scoring – in Matt Turner and Dan Norton, England have the highest try-scorers from last season with 38 and 37 respectively – but there is that extra edge of real competition to usher it away from being any sort of demonstration sport.

The game is breaking away from its big brother. Without exception the players are quick – very quick – and carry less bulk. Ryan, in the days when he had to beg and borrow from clubs to make up his team, used to receive regular complaints from their employers when players returned having shed a few pounds. Sevens players are fitter. All England teams undergo one particularly fearsome, concentrated fitness test in which Jonny Wilkinson long held the record, completing it in 205 seconds. This pre-season Norton did it in 194sec – and, at the risk of sounding like a rear-window sticker in a Twickenham car park, the sevens team do it twice, with a two-minute break in between.

"It has already moved away considerably [from 15-a-side]," says Mitchell. "They are diverging because you have to be a certain type of athlete to play sevens. You can't just chop and change. It is fairly drastically different, there is more emphasis on speed and endurance. We cover a lot more ground."

Vickerman played his first sevens game for England in 2004 and has seen the game change at first hand. "You can't really compare the two," he says. "The decisions you make in XVs are usually very structured, the plays no longer than two or three phases. In sevens everything is done much more off the cuff, much more naturally."

Ryan has been at the forefront of the sport's evolution. He comes across as strikingly similar to the type of coach rising through the ranks of the more successful Olympic sports, especially with his willingness to innovate and explore. "Ben is inspired by teams like Barcelona that have reinvented a game within a game," says Vickerman. In the not so distant days when funding was in short supply, Ryan struck a deal with Scott Drawer, UK Sport's head of research and innovation, for the sevens team to act as his guinea pigs. Some of the technology used in the London Games to help cyclists keep their edge in between races was developed on the sevens team.

Ryan has also used personality profiling on the squad. "It's Jung's model of personality profiling so it's done on colours," says Mitchell. "It's really important in our environment when you are working so closely with people for such a long time."

Ryan has a full-time, 19-strong squad to work with. They operate under central contracts – a term that may be a dirty word in English rugby, but it is a system that has worked. "You can't have two paymasters," asserts Ryan. Initially contracts were worth around £10,000 a year. The figures have risen rapidly and although they remain shy of the top Premiership deals – the average there is around £70,000 – sevens now offers a realistic financial alternative.

The connection to England's on-field rise is no coincidence. Last season they finished third in the World Series, behind New Zealand and Fiji, having won the Dubai leg and finished runners-up in Glasgow. There were five different winners from nine legs last season, highlighting a rise in the level of competition, with South Africa and France now serious players too.

The Twickenham event attracted a crowd of 60,000 for one of the days – a record. This is a sport that has arrived, even if it will soon depart for somewhere new.

When California dreamers won rugby gold

It was in October 2009 that rugby sevens and golf were chosen by the International Olympic Committee as newcomers for the 2016 Games. The two sports beat squash, a perennial challenger and one that will bid again, and karate. For rugby it marks a return to the Olympics – the 15-a-side game featured in four Games: 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924.

The sport was handed an early route to the Games with the backing of Pierre de Coubertin, who fathered the modern Olympics in between refereeing rugby matches. France won the first event, with Britain represented by a club side, Moseley Wanderers from the west Midlands. Eight years later in London, the RFU chose the county champions, Cornwall, to fly the flag but they proved no match for the might of Australia and were beaten 32-3. The last two Games were both won by the United States, with teams made up of Californian students at a time when the sport was briefly popular on the West Coast.

Robin Scott-Elliot

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