RICHARD Cockerill has talked a lot about the improvement in standards he expects of his players both on and off the pitch, but there is another reform that the Edinburgh head coach is carrying out without public proclamation. Steadily if silently, he is redressing the balance between his team and the Scotland Sevens squad, and ensuring that it is the 15-a-side professional code that receives priority.
The pre-eminence of the full national team over its seven-a-side equivalent is recognised throughout the rugby world, with Fiji being arguably the only country whose exploits in the abbreviated game are regarded as more important by its own supporters. But there has been no such clear-cut understanding when sevens is compared to 15-a-side teams such as Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors. True, some players have gone on to thrive at sevens after being effectively demoted from the pro teams, but the hierarchy has never been explicit.
Now, thanks to Cockerill, it is, and so far at least, Edinburgh have appeared to take priority over the Scotland sevens squad. The rehabilitation of Dougie Fife is the most high-profile example of this, but so too has been the return to 15s of James Johnstone.
The Edinburgh centre had become a sevens specialist over the past few seasons, getting no more than the occasional outing in the larger code. Over the past couple of months, however, he has become an increasingly useful member of Cockerill’s squad, despite being in one of the most competitive positions. Johnstone is sensible enough not to burn his bridges and declare he never wants to take part in a game of sevens again, but earlier this week, as he looked ahead to Edinburgh’s PRO14 match against the Ospreys at Myreside on Saturday night, he made it plain where he sees his future.
“Career-wise I’m looking more to the 15s avenue at the moment, just because I’m in that environment and I’ve been given the opportunities,” the 27-year-old said. “I’ve achieved a lot in sevens, and I feel I can always go back, through my skill set, to the sevens game. But at the moment I’m concentrating on 15s.
“This is a new challenge for me, and I’m really grateful to Richard for giving me the opportunity to show I can play the 15-a-side game as well. I’m just enjoying that part of it and trying to show what I can do on the 15s pitch at the moment. I’ve really enjoyed this last two or three months being part of the team and trying to build Edinburgh to get positive results this season.”
Having said that, Johnstone admitted that he was not yet sure what the future would bring, and whether he would be called up by the sevens squad or allowed to stay and fight for a regular starting berth with Edinburgh. “I don’t really know myself at the moment. I’m getting opportunities in the team and I’m just trying to put out the best impression I can. I’m sure discussions will be ongoing with that.”
Johnstone would doubtless also try to make the best impression if he were recalled by the sevens squad, but by his own admission he would certainly not be on top form straight away. Most of the skills involved may be transferable from one code to the other, but the crucial difference is the need to bulk up in order to withstand the rigours of 15s – or, to put it the other way, the need to be a little lighter in sevens in order to be as fast as possible.
“You need a little bit of time to change and adapt,” Johnstone explained. “For me, having been away from 15s for a while, it took me a bit of time to get up to speed at the start of the season.
“I feel I’m very experienced in the sevens circuit, but it would take me a little while to get up to speed again on the physical side. It would be quite difficult, because it’s short and intense, to chop and change between the two. I’m not sure that would be the best. It’s just the intensity of shorter games and that sort of thing.
“My first game for Edinburgh this season was against Leinster and I played the 80 minutes. I was definitely feeling it at the end: I felt I had played for a very, very long time after the 80 minutes – it was a tough game for me. I’m starting to get to grips with that over the last few weeks from getting more playing time. I’m starting to adapt.
“You’re dealing with more physical guys, so maybe being a bit heavier [is necessary]. But I‘m still trying to play to my strengths and not get too heavy. I feel like I’m light on my feet and agile enough to beat players, so I want to keep that strength in my game in 15s.”
It makes sense, then, that a player should not have to switch between one code and the other with any regularity, and that the general direction of travel should be from 7s to 15s. Cockerill, for one, views sevens as primarily preparation for 15s, and Johnstone agrees.
“The evidence shows that there’s been a lot of players who have come through that programme [sevens] and developed on to be Scotland internationals, so yeah, I do see it like that,” the centre said. “I feel like I’ve been in sevens a long time and maybe could have made that transition a little bit earlier. But I’ve been given the opportunity now and that’s why I’m very happy that Richard has given me that chance to show that I can transition across.”