SCOTTISH RUGBY remains committed to the national Sevens programme in the long-term, despite confirmation this [Tuesday] morning that the 2020 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series – which had been rescheduled to run through until October – has now been cancelled with four tournaments left unplayed, due to ongoing travel and safety restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was reported in the English press earlier this week that the Scottish, English and Welsh men’s and women’s Sevens teams are likely to merge into a unified Great Britain side as a long-term result of the coronavirus crisis, with this being seen as a way of making Sevens a more attractive funding proposition for UK Sport ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and thus reducing each of the Unions’ own outlay on the shortened game. The three nations currently compete separately on the World Series circuit but come together as Team GB for the Olympics.
However, Jim Mallinder, head of performance rugby in Scotland, says that any collaboration in the next year on that front will not jeopardise the long-term future of the national Sevens programme, which he sees as a vital component in the performance pathway.
“Team GB is an option,” he said. “The Olympics are coming up next year and talking to Wales and England, they are quite keen on the Team GB model. We have said we are open to discussions in the very short-term on that, however, we are backing Scottish Rugby and our Sevens as a programme.
“It’s a real tricky one,” he added. “We had a feeling about the 2020 series being cancelled. Clearly, travelling to those places was not going to happen. That has been made official but we are still not quite aware of the structure of 2021, and what that is going to look like. We hope World Rugby come back with a proposal for that.”
Mallinder was not involved at the time, but he will be very aware that he is dealing with a hot potato here. His predecessor in the director of performance rugby role, Scott Johnson, toyed with the idea of pulling Scotland out of the World Series back in 2015, which prompted a furious backlash.
As the place where Sevens rugby was born when Melrose butcher Ned Haig came up with the concept to raise funds for his club back in 1883, there is a deep attachment to the shortened game across the Scottish rugby landscape, but more important than that as far as he is concerned is the role Sevens has played in the development of players such as Darcy Graham, Mark Bennett, George Horne, Greig Laidlaw and James Johnstone in recent years, as well as coaches Calum MacRae and John Dalziel.
“Having just two [pro] teams, we see it as vital for us,” said Mallinder. “We think it is good in terms of player development and also really good in terms of coach development. It is something that we are not going to chuck out.
“We’ve got the Commonwealth Games coming up in Birmingham in 2022 and we are very conscious of that. We are pulling everything together to hopefully have a good proposal moving forward.”
If that sounds promising, Mallinder did have to concede that the current situation is far from ideal for those Sevens players who are currently caught in a state of limbo, unsure of whether the renewal deals they had been expecting will materialise given that there will be no tournaments to play in for at least the next five months. There were 14 core players in the Scotland Sevens squad last season, but not all of them are out of contract.
“Unfortunately, they are a little bit [in limbo],” he said. “We need to get clarity to them, which we are hoping to get. If we can understand what is happening moving forward in the next two or three weeks then, hopefully. we can pass on that clarity to the players.
“All the Sevens players at the moment are on furlough. We will make some decisions in the very near future. The contracts are very similar to the pro teams. We have some players who are already in contract and we have some whose contracts run out this summer.”
Keeping the French and American connection
Mallinder acknowledged that costs must be cut across the whole performance department as a consequence of the pandemic but indicated that there is no appetite or necessity at the moment to completely sever links with either of Scottish Rugby’s partner clubs in Nice (France) and Washington (USA).
“We still have a relationship with them but because of Covid we have brought all our players back to Scotland,” he said. “In principle, we’re still looking to expand opportunities for players as we only really have the two pro teams followed by the Sevens. I am anxious that we need as many good players playing at as high a level as they possibly can.”
Mallinder added that he would like to see a third professional ‘franchise’ established at some point in the future but also recognised that this is not going to be a realistic prospect any time soon.
“I think it’s something that we should really consider, to try and get as many Scottish players playing at a high level as we can possibly do,” he said. “Whether that’s a third franchise playing in the PRO14, or somewhere else, it is something we need to consider. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the near future but it’s something we should look forward towards doing.”