It is every professional sportsperson’s goal to bow out at the very top of their game, and in terms of rugby sevens, no one could have got much higher than the recently retired Dan Norton.
The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series’ most prolific try-scorer announced that the HSBC Canada Sevens in Vancouver last weekend would be his 92nd and last tournament, leaving him one behind his former England team-mate and record appearance holder James Rodwell.
But one area where Norton is untouched – and will continue to be, according to those in the know – is in the try-scoring stakes, where his record of 358 World Series tries is 79 more than his nearest rival, Kenya’s Collins Injera.
That’s certainly the belief of Mike Friday, who knows a thing or two about try-scoring speedsters having coached double try centurions, Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, in his role as head coach of the US Men’s Sevens Eagles.
“I don’t think anyone will get near him (in terms of tries), although I think (Seabelo) Senatla would have been very close had he stayed on the sevens circuit,” Friday said.
“Unlike Senatla, who has always played in a really good team, Norts has had to ride the rollercoaster at times because England haven’t always been as consistent as we’d have probably all liked them to be. But what has been consistent is his ability to find the way to the try line.”
Gas to burn
Friday was also England coach when a raw Norton first emerged on the scene, taking him to Dubai with the Sporting Chance Samurai team as something of an unknown entity from Gloucester.
“You could see had wheels, you could see he had a great in-and-away break even at 19,” said Friday.
“Physically he still needed to develop and work on his game and you’ve seen that happen through the years.
“He always used to be that great attacking player but he has worked on his defence and has become a very competent defender.
“The thing that sets him apart as a winger on the sevens circuit is his left foot chip and chase, his ability to chip on the run and regather made him a deadly finisher.
“Carlin and Perry look at his chip and chase and say that’s something they wanted to get in their game because he was deadly at it. It’s a real skill he worked hard on and perfected over the years.”
Friday is convinced that without COVID-19 bringing the World Series to an abrupt stop in 2020, Norton would have gone on to become the first player to appear in more than 100 tournaments.
From the time he made his World Series debut against France in Wellington in February 2009, Norton has barely missed out with his lightning-quick pace making him an indispensable member of the England squad.
The 34-year-old also appeared in three Commonwealth Games and a couple of Rugby World Cup Sevens tournaments for England as well as winning the silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with Team GB, and that's not forgetting the brief spells he had in 15s with his hometown club Gloucester, Moseley, Bristol and London Irish.
“A phenomenal athlete”
For the quickest of racehorses, as Friday likes to describe him, Norton was blessed with the durability to last the distance.
“Dan Norton was a one-off, he had an incredible amount of energy which he showed both on the pitch and off the pitch,” said his former England and Team GB head coach Simon Amor.
“He will obviously be known for his try-scoring record and his speed and evasion but what really sets him apart for me, and I don’t think anyone in the world comes close to it is repeatability – his ability to do it again and again and again … to beat several players, run the length of the field and then go again. It was truly outstanding.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete, and I think that came down to his love of the game and his love of training and getting better.
“I can count on one hand the training sessions he missed in eight years that I was fortunate enough to get a ringside ticket to watch him train and play. He was truly committed and a brilliant advocate of rugby sevens, England Sevens and GB Sevens and one that I think we won’t see again in this world.”
If only he was Fijian …
Echoing that sentiment is 2016 Olympic gold medal-winning coach, Ben Ryan, who handed Norton his debut in Wellington. Two games into his World Series career, Norton repaid the faith shown in him with the first of his 358 tries, scored against Canada.
“Often you have sprinters in the sevens game who have one or two good runs in them and you almost need two to three minutes for them to regenerate and get going again.
“But Dan can do effort on effort and he proved that by smashing a lot of back-to-back England fitness tests which were a league above the test team wingers at the time. I know they are different games but it goes to show you how world-class athletically he was.
“There are times when he has got the England team out of jail by literally creating something out of nothing through his acceleration.
“The Fijian boys always said to me if he played for Fiji he’d have scored 100 tries a year, and they are probably right because he would have thrived in that sort of class a team.
“Saying that, the England team that he played in, in 2009/10/11, was certainly up there as a world-class team and he was a huge part of that. He’s an amazing player, a top bloke and I have got all the time in the world for him.”
A ”bloody good bloke”
That admiration and respect is shared by Damian McGrath, another to see at first-hand Norton’s professionalism and class in the England setup.
Having also coached Canada, Samoa and now Germany on the World Series, McGrath also knew what a nightmare he was to defend against.
“Dan Norton is the undisputed try-scoring king of sevens, but there was far more to his game than just an ability to run fast,” said McGrath.
“He developed into a player who could read the game as well as any halfback and exploit weaknesses and opportunities in the blink of an eye.
“Yes, his blistering pace gave him an edge, but the second half of his career saw him develop into an all-round player who could tackle, steal the ball and provide for his team-mates.
“This, of course, didn’t happen by chance, like all great players his work ethic and desire meant he never accepted second best.
“I was fortunate to coach him with England Sevens and was surprised just how skilful a player he was.
“I always felt he was a “confidence” player and the belief that England showed in him meant that coaching against him over the years has been very difficult.
“I’m sure the accolades will roll in for Norts and rightly so but I hope that as well as acknowledging his rugby prowess they mention that he is also a bloody good bloke!”