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England to switch focus back to 7s

England have confirmed their post-World Cup plans

England have confirmed that they will “transfer the focus” of their efforts away from 15s and back to sevens after the World Cup.

In a statement today, following England’s qualification for the World Cup, RFU Director for Professional Rugby, Nigel Melville, said:

“Following the conclusion of the Women’s Rugby World Cup we will switch our focus back onto sevens and the Olympic Games in 2020.”

Nigel added: “This season has seen focus intentionally put on the 15s game and preparing for the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland next month. From a sevens’ perspective in doing this, it has allowed us to identify and develop new talent in the sevens format of the game. This season has given those younger players an opportunity to gain valuable experience both on the HSBC Women’s Sevens World Series and Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series.”

It is an announcement that appears to confirm that England are now firmly wedded to a cycle under which their leading players concentrate on sevens for three years – from Sevens World Cup year, though the Olympic qualification year, to the Olympics themselves – and then switch back to 15s just for the year after the Olympics.

In essence it is a continuation, or even extension, of a policy which began in 2009, when England left out key players from some Six Nations games to concentrate on that year’s Sevens World Cup (the first time there had been a women’s competition). The policy was repeated in 2013.

Despite this both Sevens World Cup campaigns ended disappointingly at the quarter-final stage, which seemed to prompt the RFU in 2014 to take their leading players away from 15s for two years, instead of one, after the World Cup. With more time to concentrate on 7s it resulted in an apparent improvement, with Great Britain (made up of 11 England players and one from Wales) finishing fourth in Rio. Now the players will have three years to prepare.

The downside has been England’s record in the Six Nations when sevens is the focus. In 2009 they won the title, but missed out on a Grand Slam after losing to Wales for the first time. In 2013 – after winning the title every year from 2006-2012 – they could only finish third, while in 2015 and 2016 they finished 4th and 2nd. Only when their top players returned in 2017 did they win the title again for the first time since 2012.

As a result it is a policy that attracts a good deal of controversy as the leading sevens nations do not seem have switch their leading players between formats in the same way.

However, it has to be said that, compared to most of their major rivals, England have unusual pressures. None of the top six teams in this year’s World Series have regular high-profile test series, like the Six Nations – and even where they did (such as the formerly near-annual CanAm series, or regular Trans-Tasman tests) these have quietly faded away, unless prompted by fifteens World Cup preparations. It could be argued that most of the top six Sevens nations adopt exactly the same policy as England, but no-one notices as they do not play any tests when their focus is on sevens.

The only exceptions are France and Ireland. However, both are quite new to sevens – neither taking a serious interest in the format until as recently as 2014 or 2015 - so it’s hard to say they have a set policy (or how successful it has been). It’s also probably true to say that neither has the same pressure to succeed at sevens as England/Great Britain have. France or Ireland would be delighted with a fourth at the Olympics, or a Plate win in the Sevens World Cup, but for England/Great Britain the unspoken expectations were (and are) for more.

Sevens is still where an awful lot of money comes from. Furthermore, British Olympic Association grants are not only significant, but tied firmly to success, and ruthlessly cut if targets are not met. Few other National Olympic Associations in the world impose such pressure to win medals on their sports associations (which may account for why countries like Spain or France or Ireland are apparently more easily pleased). It is a pressure that the BOA argue has been highly successful, but which imposes a great, even distorting, burden on sports bodies who gear their entire programmes around the Olympics – British cyclists are notorious at only hitting their stratospheric heights in Olympics years, for example. Fortunately for rugby the men won silver in Rio as it is highly possible that the BOA might not see fourth as “good enough”.

But it is a high-risk strategy that makes the women’s game much more difficult to sell. Sevens may be where the money is, but (whatever hype World Rugby may push) fifteens is a far, far more popular format with spectators and television. Compare the crowds at pretty much any Women's World Series sevens tournament with pretty much any Women's Six Nations game last year.

People excited by the 2017 Six Nations and World Cup will find it hard to understand where all of the stars they followed have suddenly all disappeared to (just as in 2015 they asked how the World Champions could suddenly finish fourth in the following Six Nations). High profile names and faces sell the game, but fans (not to mention sponsors) need to see them play. If they go invisible for three years out of every four (bearing in mind that sevens gets as near to zero media coverage in the UK as makes no odds) it risks killing what is still a fragile flower of media interest.

In a way, you have to have sympathy with the RFU. Recent results suggest that the player base in women’s rugby (unlike men’s), even in England, is simply is not big enough yet for them to have a world-beating sevens and fifteens team at the same time.  So. they are damned whichever direction they take – upset the BOA and risk losing (a lot of) money, or upset the spectators and media and risk a slower growing game? Tough decision. What would you do?