Many greats, including Gareth Edwards and Will Carling, have played in the Rosslyn Park National Sevens and skills acquired here can be priceless in top-level XVs
Everyone in Mumbai knows about the Oval Maidan where 100 games of cricket can take place simultaneously. Football’s nearest equivalent used to be Hackney Marshes where, during the 1950s and 1960s, 120 pitches would cater for 2,500 players every Sunday morning. And rugby? Look no further than the Rosslyn Park National Schools Sevens taking place in south-west London this week.
Over the coming days the world’s largest schools sevens tournament will play host to no fewer than 9,624 participants aged 13 to 18 and 800 teams, including representatives from Pakistan (the splendidly named Angels International College, Faisalabad), Dubai, Kenya, Lebanon and Canada. The tournament, now in its 80th year, has spawned countless future internationals and created lasting memories for even more. Head south down the A3 past Robin Hood Gate and, stretching way into the distance, you will find boys and girls living out their dreams in real time.
By coincidence one of the current tournament organisers, Dom Shabbo, played in that very game and can personally testify to the event’s continuing grip on the imagination. “The tournament will be etched in kids’ memories for years and years and that’s what we’re trying to build on,” he says. It helps when, as looks likely this week, the weather plays ball and there is something resembling grass to play rugby on. A few years ago one pitch had so much standing water around the halfway line that a crocodile could have been in the shallows awaiting its unwary dinner.
Nowadays the big games are live-streamed but as a cub reporter for Hayters agency in the 1980s it was my job to sit in the steamed-up clubhouse, sifting through hundreds of results before venturing out into the Somme-like mud to find the best stories. The most extravagant teenage talent I ever saw was Colin Stephens, who went on to play fly-half for Wales before switching to rugby league with Leeds. No less a judge than Neil Jenkins once suggested he had more natural talent that Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Andrew Mehrtens and Hugo Porta; back in the day he took teams apart like a young Phil Bennett.
That same spring a friend’s brother was playing for St Bees School from Cumbria. We duly popped along to watch a raw‑boned Stuart Reid, who went on to represent Scotland, galloping up and down en route to claiming the title. Little did any of us know a future England head coach was also involved; among Reid’s other teammates was Stuart Lancaster, for whom the experience clearly whetted his appetite for bigger and better things.
It has been a similar story for many since the tournament’s inaugural year in 1939: state schools, grammar schools, public schools and sixth form colleges all vying for supremacy, with the first girls’ tournament held in 1998. The only snag is the congested fixture calendar that, frustratingly, means representative age-group rugby, club colts fixtures and 15-a-side schools competitions frequently collide at a time of year when the weather is notoriously fickle.
Premiership academy scouts will at least be watching towards the end of this week but when it comes to the crunch, many clubs seem to be favouring muscle over skill. Seeing the former England sevens representative Ruaridh McConnochie impressing for Bath at Exeter on Sunday was again to be reminded what a short-sighted attitude that is: skills acquired on the sevens field can be priceless in top level XVs. “Sevens is a fantastic development tool,” says Shabbo. “It puts all your core skills under pressure in a tough environment. You just have to look at the lads across the Premiership who have played sevens to a decent level. They’re always a joy to watch.”
Just occasionally, too, schools sevens can be a career-changing catalyst. Saracens’ Tom Whiteley had previously been rejected by Bath and Harlequins but was picked up by Sarries after being spotted by a scout at Rosslyn Park. “It’s definitely a hotbed of talent and people get signed up off the back of it,” says Shabbo. Good luck to this week’s teenage gladiators – from Angels International College downwards – and a very happy 80th to all involved.
The special one
So, in the wake of Wales’s Six Nations grand slam triumph, how many Welsh sides are pushing hard for knockout success in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup quarter-finals this weekend? The answer is none in either competition, which makes the national team’s recent unbeaten efforts all the more creditable. You might think that England, for one, might be falling over themselves to engage the services of either Shaun Edwards or Warren Gatland – or both – to take over from Eddie Jones assuming the latter opts to move on from Twickenham after the 2019 World Cup. As things stand, however, senior RFU figures suggest no one will be appointed until after the tournament in Japan, not least because their new permanent chief executive, Bill Sweeney, is unlikely to be in place before May at the earliest. If they delay too long, however, how many of the best candidates will already have been snapped up by others?
One to watch
When the quarter-final draw was confirmed, the prospect of a Scottish team making the last four of this year’s European Champions Cup seemed relatively slim. Glasgow and Edinburgh have had excellent campaigns but the European records of Saracens and Munster are hugely impressive. If Scotland’s finest can pick up where the national team left off in the second half at Twickenham, however, nothing is entirely guaranteed. And if Finn Russell twirls his baton effectively for Racing 92 against Toulouse on Sunday, the thistle could be represented in the final during Newcastle in May regardless.