After eight weeks of training in Loughborough, Great Britain men’s head coach Tony Roques is looking forward to seeing his players put to the test at this weekend’s international rugby sevens Olympics preparation tournament.
Great Britain will compete with Ireland and the USA in the three-day men’s tournament, while Team GB and the national teams from Ireland and France make up the women’s competition.
The tournament will take place from 15-17 May at St. George’s Park, the English Football Association’s national training centre, and will provide invaluable competitive game time in the build up towards the Tokyo Olympics.
“Effectively it is a three-day tournament trying to replicate the Olympics with two games a day, on Saturday, Sunday, Monday,” said Roques, ahead of what will be his first tournament in the role.
“To actually put the guys under that kind of pressure and see how they rise to the challenge, it’s exciting.
“We’ve been in eight camps so far and it is time now to see where we are at, to see what we are good at and what things we need to work on, against opposition other than ourselves.
“I am definitely going to learn a lot about the squad and how we work as a coaching team in-tournament. There will be a lot of learnings for us going into the Olympics.”
#Ireland7s— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) May 13, 2021
💥 𝗣𝗮𝗰𝗲. 𝗣𝗼𝘄𝗲𝗿. 𝗣𝗿𝗲𝗰𝗶𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻. 👊
Don’t know about you, but our weekend will be spent watching #IreW7s 𝙩𝙚𝙖𝙧 𝙞𝙩 𝙪𝙥 at the #InternationalRugby7s! 😍 #IrishRugby #ShoulderToShoulder pic.twitter.com/M2Aa06N9dx
The bigger picture
A two-time Hong Kong Sevens winner as a player with England, Roques was long retired by the time the first Olympics rugby sevens tournament was held in Rio 2016.
But now he has the opportunity to go to Tokyo as head coach of one of the main contenders.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I genuinely believe it’s an Olympics with a massive difference. With what has gone in the world and what is going on in the world, it is a massive reality check, about the importance of sport and life and getting that balance right.
“That’s a big thing we’ve played on, it is much more than a medal. This is really, really important but there is a bigger picture as to what has gone on in the world and where we see sevens and where we want to take it.
“COVID has definitely put a different spin on it. I think we are all just incredibly grateful we’ve got this opportunity.”
Moving on from Madrid
Like Roques, USA men’s sevens head coach Mike Friday is delighted that he’ll get to see a group of players – and a very different group to the one that finished third in another preparation event in Madrid in February – in competitive action overseas.
“It kind of makes you remember how much love and enjoyment comes from playing the actual game,” said Friday.
“Playing against yourself is very hard, you only see one way of playing and you end up cancelling each other out.
“It is exciting for people like Carlin Isles, Stevie Tomasin and (captain) Madison Hughes, who weren’t able to go to Madrid, that they are now getting a chance to travel and compete, and then you’ve got the up and coming boys of Maceo Brown, Marcus Tupoula and Joe Schroeder, who are all pushing hard and have another opportunity to stake a claim.”
Perry Baker broke his leg in Madrid but is back up and running again as he continues his rehab back in the States, while it was felt that other experienced players like Danny Barrett would be better served by being left at home.
“We went to Madrid with 16 players in February and we came back with eight. It was brutal, brutal for a number of reasons,” said Friday.
“While we were running fit, we weren’t durable fit. And we went to Madrid and came up against a very durable Kenyan team and a very durable Argentina team and we were found wanting.
“So I pulled us out of Dubai because we had to get everyone back fit again and that’s taken us six weeks. We are in a far better place now.”
🗣 @joyce_jaz— GB Rugby Sevens (@GBRugbySevens) May 13, 2021
⏪ #Rio2016 "Finishing fourth is probably the worst place to come, as you’re so close to getting that medal."
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Eagles sevens playing catch-up
Friday admits the challenges posed by COVID meant his side weren’t at their best in Madrid and they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
“We had six months off completely, came back in before Christmas, and we had to be careful with contact and the impact on their bodies, and we were probably too careful.
“By the time we got to Christmas, we had got them into a reasonable shape but then we had three weeks off and they ended up having to have an extra week because of all the logistics and the re-entry process, which dragged on, so we were playing catch-up.
“We’ve left some experienced boys at home because they are not where they need to be individually at the moment to compete so it is better for them to have those four weeks at home.”
That has opened the door for relative rookies like Malacchi Esdale and Harley Wheeler to impress before the squads for Tokyo are named at the end of June.
“Malacchi is a football crossover and a relatively new man to rugby. He played 12-18 months in the MLR with Houston Sabercats and has picked up the game well. He’s got good speed, good balance and aerially he is good,” advised Friday.
“Harley is an all-action, bustling bowling ball, who flies around and has no care or attention for his body. He’s had a season at Atlanta, and did very well on the College circuit and had one cap on the world series before COVID hit.”
Repechage preparation for Ireland
In Ireland, the USA and England face one of the emerging forces on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Ireland have yet to confirm their place in Tokyo and this weekend’s tournament will give coach Anthony Eddy a good gauge on what shape his team are in ahead of the Olympic repechage tournament in Monaco in June.
Last year’s world series top try-scorer Jordan Conroy is one of the standout names in a strong-looking Ireland men’s squad captained by Billy Dardis.
Lucy Mulhall, meanwhile, will lead an exciting 16-player Ireland women’s squad into their first competitive action of the season, as they go head-to-head with hosts Great Britain and France.
Having recently featured in the Women’s Six Nations for Ireland, Stacey Flood, Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, Eve Higgins, Grace Moore, Brittany Hogan and Emily Lane are all included.
Commenting ahead of the tournament, Eddy said: “We are really looking forward to getting back to international competition and actually playing some matches.
“We are very grateful for the opportunity and thankful for all the work that has taken place behind the scenes to allow us to participate in the tournament.”
Part of the GB journey
For GB women’s sevens head coach Scott Forrest, the tournament is all about performance and not necessarily about results.
“They’ll be 22 players with us this week and we are hoping all 22 players will get some game time,” he said.
“I want players to have the opportunity to show what they’ve been doing in training and whether they can translate that into more of a pressured situation. And there is an opportunity for me to start looking at certain combinations of players.
“We won't be putting what we feel is our strongest seven on the pitch each game. The focus for us this weekend is very much on performance.
“Our ultimate aim is to win a gold medal on the last day in July, our aim is not to win every game this weekend.
“This weekend is part of the journey towards us wanting to be standing on top of the podium but I don’t expect us to be perfect.”
The tournament will be played behind closed doors with the event streamed on englandrugby.com.