Rugby Sevens Crisis - Ex-England captain Rob Vickerman fears for game’s future

FOR someone who represented England Sevens with such distinction, seeing the brutal damage now inflicted on the successful national set-up is particularly “galling” for Rob Vickerman.

Rob Vickerman of England runs with the ball during the Gold Coast Sevens Cup quater final match between Fiji and England at Skilled Stadium on October 13, 2013 on the Gold Coast, Australia.  (Picture: Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
Rob Vickerman of England runs with the ball during the Gold Coast Sevens Cup quater final match between Fiji and England at Skilled Stadium on October 13, 2013 on the Gold Coast, Australia. (Picture: Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

The Rugby Football Union recently told its full-time players – from both men’s and women’s squads – that they would not be renewing their contracts at the end of this month.

Although it has long been known the coronavirus has had a massively debilitating effect on the governing body – the RFU are projected to lose £107m in revenue due to the pandemic – few people expected such a drastic course of action.

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The Sevens squads have essentially been shut down, players told to look for alternative employment are now seeing massive doubt on their dreams of representing Team GB in next year’s rearranged Tokyo Olympics.

England v Argentina in Rugby Sevens (Picture: Getty Images)

Who knows what will happen with any England involvement in the 2020-21 World Rugby Sevens Series. Indeed, the Series may not survive as other nations are surely looking at cost-cutting, too.

Clearly, there has already been swingeing cuts elsewhere in the RFU with the worrying situation that has seen more than 100 jobs go from the community game and at regional level.

Leeds-born Vickerman, who captained England in the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens Final and made more than 75 appearances for his country, told The Yorkshire Post: “It is a real strange situation.

“The whole state of the RFU is not ideal. For me, the biggest concern across the game, is the RDO (regional development officer) cuts. But once you hear about the Sevens cuts as well, you remember you have a performance programme in place there that took a bloody long time to get to.

England's Abigail Burton is tackled by France's Julie Annery during the HSBC USA Women's Sevens tournament at Infinity Park on Sunday, October 21, 2018 in Glendale, Colorado. (Picture: Getty Images)

“Basically, there were conversations in 2009 around how do you advance the programme and make it peak competitively and consistently and a full-time programme was the only way.

“South Africa were there already, New Zealand were on the way and that’s what England did.

“The women will have seen that as a shining light, too, as they were then able to do what the men did 10 years ago.

“For it all to now just crumble – not even to just slowly disband but bang, gone – it is galling.

Former Leeds star Rob Vickerman. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

“And that’s before you even really go into the timing of it all: nine months away from the biggest sporting event in some of these players’ careers.”

Former centre Vickerman, 34, started out his own career at Leeds Tykes and made his Sevens debut in 2005 but became a full-time contracted England player after leaving Newcastle Falcons in 2011.

He now commentates on the sport and said: “There’s a massive amount of pride and reflection for me as I look back and think I had my effort at a time when it couldn’t have been any better to finish as we did with a couple of World Cup finals.

“But then I just think why would you just throw it all away?

“The crux was probably not Covid but around about two or three years ago when there was a decision made internally about where do we go with Sevens?

“Do we use it as the wider world sees it?

“That’s as a development tool to bring in your 19, 20, 21 year-old players, throw them into an environment where they’d be tested more so than anywhere in the 15s environment and use that as – to use their rhetoric – a really integrated pathway?

“However, what it ended up being was a completely segregated bubble of individuals who committed everything that they could but, at the same time, cut themselves off from 15s.

“So much so that only now, eight or nine weeks after first trying, the most prolific tryscorer in Sevens history Dan Norton has got what is essentially an opportunity – I wouldn’t say it’s a contract – in 15s with London Irish.

“It just shows me how far down the pecking order they are which is ridiculous as, in terms of skill-set – in hot weather and conditions where people need to be fit – then they are the best of the best.

“I do think Sevens has led its way down this path with that earlier decision.”

UK Sport do not currently fund the Team GB model and Vickerman hopes there will be some “form of salvation” there but, like many, he remains concerned for the long-term future of the sport.

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James Mitchinson