SCOTTISH RUGBY has stated that it plans to continue running Scotland 7s programmes despite today’s announcement that Scotland, England and Wales are to join forces as Team GB ahead of the 2023 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
This decision to merge the three countries was mandated by World Rugby in order to align the World Series with Olympic qualification requirements. Great Britain previously participated in the series in 2021 in preparation for that year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
England, Scotland and Wales will compete as individual nations in the Commonwealth Games, which take place at Coventry Stadium on 29th-31st July, and Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town on 9th-11th September, before reverting to GB for the 2023 World Rugby Sevens Series when the men’s competition kicks off in Hong Kong on 4th-6th November 2022, before combined men’s and women’s rounds in Dubai on 2nd-3rd December and Cape Town on 9th-11th December.
While the respective unions and World Rugby are in discussions with regard to further playing opportunities for the England, Scotland and Wales teams, it is hard to discern any real strategic value in this from a player development perspective. The World Series is the pinnacle of international sevens in any regular season so, as it stands, any other playing opportunities are going to be intermittent and of a questionable level.
While the Scotland Women’s team doesn’t currently compete as a core nation in the World Series, that was surely always the goal, and without any real prospect of graduating beyond the Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Championship, you have to ask: what is the point?
“Once rugby sevens became an Olympic sport there was increasingly a requirement from World Rugby that Team GB, as the recognised Olympic entity, should also become part of the sevens landscape to align Olympic qualification through the HSBC World Sevens Series,” said Jim Mallinder, Scottish Rugby’s Director of High Performance.
“We want our players competing at the highest possible level moving forward and I fully expect Scotland to have good representation in the Team GB squads, both for men and women.
“Sevens will continue to play a role in our development pathway and we want to maintain the pipeline of quality players capable of representing both Scotland and Team GB in the future.
“We will continue discussions with World Rugby as to what those future playing opportunities will look like.”
The value of Sevens in the development ‘pipeline’ in Scotland has always been a source of conjecture. With only two pro men’s teams and no pro women’s rugby below international level, there is limited opportunities in Scotland for emerging players to develop in a full-time environment, so the sevens programmes have been a safety net/back-up option which has helped several players over the years.
Kyle Rowe is the most recent full-cap to have played on the circuit, which kept him in the professional environment when full-time contracts at Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors were not forthcoming (although it was his performances for London Irish last season which catapulted him into the Scotland set-up). Mark Bennett, Darcy Graham, George Horne and Damien Hoyland are among the other current Scotland fifteens squad member to have benefited from a stint playing the abbreviated game.
However, the sport at international level is increasingly populated by specialists who have no great desire to return to the fifteens game, and that can be tricky to justify financially when the men’s international fifteen-aside game is the goose that lays the golden egg, no matter how small the costs involved in sevens are.
There is also a historical and emotional perspective to this. Given that Melrose is the birth place of sevens rugby, it will grate with a lot of rugby fans in this country if Scotland loses its presence on the international stage.
Scott Johnson, previous Director of Performance at Murrayfield, provoked a furious backlash when he attempted to disband Scotland’s Sevens programme back in 2015 on financial grounds and that scheme was eventually abandoned. This time it is different, with Mallinder on record supporting Scotland’s involvement in the World Series, while today’s various press releases make it very clear that the change has been “mandated” by World Rugby.
Interestingly, World Rugby’s Sevens Strategy Group is chaired by current Scottish Rugby Chairman John Jeffrey according to the most recent update on the organisation’s website dated 26th August 2020.
Four Scots made the 12 strong men’s sevens squad for the 2020 Olympics and a similar representation in the GB squad when it launches later this year is as good as we can really hope for. The professional future of the remainder of Scotland’s core squad members (there is 12 in total) will depend on whether a credible schedule can be created which justifies the costs involved.
The situation appears to be more fluid for the women’s players as they are not on full-time dedicated sevens contracts, but any reduction in the number of opportunities for Scotland’s top women players to grow on the international stage has got to be a concern at a time when all the stops are apparently being pulled out to develop and promote this branch of the game.
“We are acutely aware of Scotland’s heritage and passion for sevens rugby. As such we remain fully committed to a Scotland 7s programme to develop our players and coaches,” added Mallinder.“The move to a GB Sevens team on the World Series will give Scottish players, both men and women, a unique opportunity to represent and compete on the largest global stage through the World Series and Olympic Games.
“It is an exciting development and one we intend to play a full part in.”
The timing of this announcement is far from ideal given that it is bound to have an unsettling effect for both teams just as they apply the finishing touches to their Commonwealth Games preparation ahead of that competition kicking-off next Friday.