“Are you okay?” asked the lady standing over me as I lay in a pool of sweat, next to the frayed rubber mat and make-shift bench on top of the nineties style ‘step-aerobics’ set up.
I had just been chewed up, and spat out, by a Body Pump class. I was lying in a lactic acid lockdown, way past trying to hide my damaged pride.
The 15 or so other participants in the class pushed themselves hard, but absorbed the pain and masses of micro-movements with a regal dignity. I, on the other hand, had given my central nervous system and multiple joints and muscles the mother of all shocks. The others in the room were long-standing regulars; they had all adjusted to this training style – and that matters.
There is context to this story from just last year, as I had only ever once felt the same levels of pain and indignity. The same feeling of a first day of pre-season jolt meaning I had to walk differently for several days, not to mention avoiding stairs. The same feeling of being surrounded by people who were clearly used to the purposeful practice and specific movements and intensity that my body hadn’t: sevens training.
Sevens has always been a different beast to 15s, but never more so than today, in the era of professionalism for some men’s teams and unions. For this reason of sheer specialism, not even those 15s stars with envious pedigree and profile will transition smoothly into the shortened version.
Players need gradual physiological adjustment, to allow the changes of adaption and to perform under the pressure of fatigue. A rugby skillset will set someone aside momentarily, but it’s athletic endurance that will lead to their ultimate selection.
That said, there will be few more excited spectators than I at the prospect of arguably the world’s current greatest 15s men’s player, Antoine Dupont, taking his place on a sevens pitch. Dupont’s aura matches his ability, and there were, rightly, joyous noises about his willingness to put his hand up – as well as a couple of current French sevens playmakers likely looking around with a slightly more subdued feeling.
But, a hand going up is one thing. The challenge facing Dupont, or any established 15s player wanting to become a rugby Olympian and to crack the sevens code, is something quite different. Dupont’s USP in the longer format is par for the course in sevens; sniping, acceleration, footwork and fends.
It will be how he can harness his innate ability from his superior vision, adept kicking and freakish strength through contact that will see him flourish. Australia’s Michael Hooper is in this same category. As a leader of the modern-day breakdown, his skillset is beyond reproach, but it his ability to have a similar impact at 1.5 times 15s speed will be his acid test.
The good to the great
Sevens alumni such as Cheslin Kolbe and Kwagga Smith are cited as success stories from the stepping-stone of sevens to 15s World Cup-winning fame – but going from 15s to sevens is a different concept.
Put simply, any sevens player can play 15s, but not every 15s player can play sevens. The question is, therefore, who can?
In 2016, two all-time rugby greats, Bryan Habana and Sonny Bill Williams, parked their 15s careers for a crack at sevens. Habana humbly failed in this attempt, while Sonny Bill Williams filled many columns citing the rigorous, often brutal, regimes of New Zealand Sevens’ legendary coach Sir Gordon Tietjens along his journey.
He rightly made the cut for Rio, having had some solid impacts on the sevens circuit during his five-month programme of adjustment but, sadly, he damaged his Achilles in the opening game at Rio Olympics.
There is a slight caveat to sevens – if you’re Fijian! Josua Tuisova and Semi Radradra possess the power to disrupt any version of rugby, but partly as they also grew up playing sevens on the magical islands, as most inhabitants do, it’s hard-wired into their DNA.
The need for speed
The pace of the sevens is frightening. A ‘fast’ 15s player will be tested in a completely different way in sevens. Stuart Hogg learned this at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, as did Jarryd Hayne, abruptly, at Twickenham’s London Sevens post his NFL jaunt.
The main requirement to succeed in sevens from 15s is a point of difference, as almost all the players are top-end quick, phenomenally fit and super skilful. Think aerial skills, or a power- and offload-game rather than just pace, such as Samu Kerevi, another 15s star who spearheaded the Australian team brilliantly at the Tokyo Olympics.
However, of all the names I saw mentioned in the past month, Sekou Macalou whets the appetite depicting a different way of playing sevens. The restart is firmly fixed as a fundamental part of sevens - if you score, you restart - and dominating the air means you dominate the game.
Macalou would be a triple threat in this facet, and obviously lineouts, too. Sticking to the home team for the Olympic Games Paris 2024, Damian Penaud, could combine his explorative broken-field wing play in 15s to be a great addition as a centre, alongside some of the French sevens team’s current speedsters.
Taking the above pre-requisites and assuming training time and employment contracts were not a barrier who do I think could crack the sevens code from men’s 15s. How about this lot?
Sekou Macalou (France)
Jac Morgan (Wales)
Theo MacFarland (Samoa)
Antoine Dupont (France)
Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)
Damian Penaud (France)
Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales)
By Rob Vickerman