Tom Mitchell: England's near-perfect rugby sevens week in Vancouver

As the HSBC SVNS 2024 series rolls into Vancouver, former England captain Tom Mitchell recalls a previous tournament in western Canada when – almost – everything went exactly to plan.

It was all because of the pasta. 

At least that was the belief that started the tradition of pre-tournament pasta meals at Zefferellis, a small Italian restaurant in central Vancouver. The self-described ‘Dignified Spaghetti Joint’ hosted us in 2017 for a scrumptious feelgood feed that – in our minds – set us up for one of our greatest days.

Greatest? It turned out to be the best day of rugby I’ve played in an England shirt. Day two of the HSBC Canada Sevens in 2017 was glorious – it’s one of only three occasions I lifted a tournament trophy. It was a day on which it all came together for us, a day that we beat all the big guns.

The glory of beating the ‘Big Three’ at the time – New Zealand, Fiji, and South Africa – was created because of the background of how we were feeling going into that tournament. 

I spent the week sticking to my bed sheets. My team-mates were much the same. Between us we had picked up some spectacular turf burns from Las Vegas the previous weekend, and even the hotel beds at the Sutton Place Hotel (the best beds on tour) weren’t comfortable, with raw flesh exposed along our thighs and knees. It wasn’t just the turf burns. We were at the midpoint of a gruelling season – and the bumps, bruises and niggles were adding up. 

A popular television series at the time, called Taboo, featured Tom Hardy suffering and grunting his way through a torrid life in 19th-century London. 

One of our favourite lines from the show became a darkly comic anchor for us that week in our limping state. Whenever someone moaned or groaned or mentioned any of the various ailments they might be nursing we shrugged and in our best Tom Hardy grunt… “If he dies, he dies” (it’s an expression also made famous by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV but that movie pre-dated the average age range we were working with).

Aches and pains aside, we had a good squad that year with some top-quality players. 

Ruaridh McConnochie was doing his thing; the two Daniels, Norton and Bibby, were red hot; and Phil Burgess and Rich de Carpentier were causing havoc in the forwards. The experience and nouse of James Rodwell and Charlie Hayter combined with some upcoming young talent in the form of Ethan Waddleton, Charlton Kerr and Will Edwards who was on debut. 

There was an underlying, unspoken, belief in what we were capable of having claimed the title in Cape Town earlier that season. 

The taste of victory is quickly forgotten in sevens, however, as the tournaments come thick and fast – and we had dropped points with a seventh and fifth-place finish after Cape Town which were below our new expectations.

I have learned over the years the best reset between tournaments is to enjoy yourselves as a team. 

So, in Vancouver, in 2017, we spent the week cycling around Stanley Park, visiting the brilliant coffee shops of Gastown and watching the hockey team, the Canucks, play in the local arena. And we had plenty of laughs. 

Humour is often required when training for Vancouver – a sport that chases the sun takes a humorous twist by stopping off in the Canadian winter. Training that week was characterised by snow, ice and partially frozen artificial pitches. Training played second fiddle to the fun that week.

Day one went well: victories against Kenya and Chile meant a showdown with South Africa for top spot in Pool A. A notable scrap for the end of the day, we drew 12-apiece – but they topped the pool on points difference. This meant we would have to go the hard way on day two.

The draw meant we had New Zealand first up. We won by two points, which buoyed the squad no end as beating the All Blacks Sevens was a rare event for most teams in those days. 

Next, we faced formidable Fiji. This is where things became Hollywood for us. We put 40 points on them. They replied with a single score but we dominated the island legends. It was starting to look like one of those days: I couldn’t miss with my conversions, passes always found their target, the bounce of the ball favoured us. The rugby sevens gods were smiling.

Did we begin to dream? Honestly, no we didn’t. We were having a great time and things were going well. We were enjoying that ride! Furthermore, we had to face a side in the final that was top of the pile that season, South Africa. Their only defeat that season had been against us in the Cape Town final. 

It is a strange element of a sevens tournament that you can face a team twice in two days. We drew South Africa in the group and despite them being world leaders at that stage, we were feeling evenly matched. 

The game was a customary physical tussle against the punishing Blitzboks. We were all square at half time: 7-7. 

During the short break they played Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. The sevens tournament classic might have seeped into the psyche for us at a key time – two tries in the second half sealed the deal.

The last of these tries was scored by Dan Norton. It was his 244th try bringing him level with Collins Injera as the series' all-time leading try scorer. 

Always a useful guy to have on your team, Norts said after the game that he had to thank his team-mates for putting him in good positions to score all those tries. I’m still waiting for my ‘thank you’!

Hugs and smiles all round at the final whistle – excitement, contentment, and happiness flooding through the system. There’s no feeling quite like it. 

Trophy presentations are always memorable but I will always recall my surprise on seeing the unique trophy as it was carried towards me. The huge wooden cup is a beautiful design from the local First Nations people. It’s a heavy old thing, I can tell you, and I genuinely wasn’t sure how high I could get it on the trophy lift.

It is a curious physiological phenomenon that, when you win, suddenly nothing hurts anymore. The way the boys danced naked around the changing room to The Streets’ Fit But You Know It showed no signs of the physical toil we had felt in the build up.

The grazes and scrapes would make themselves felt again once the dust settled, but in that moment we were flying and nothing could hurt us.

The word count for this article means I can’t describe that night’s celebrations in full but I am sure you can use your imagination. I will say a misplaced sense of confidence that night meant a few of us got up on the stage at the busiest live music venue in Vancouver (The Roxy – IYKYK).

Lifting the unique Vancouver sevens trophy at the end of that weekend was truly incredible. My heart was full. Our smiles shone out to a stadium rich with the sense of a good time had by all.

By Tom Mitchell

Take part in all of the on-field and off-field action in Vancouver with the HSBC SVNS Predictor Game. Making team and player predictions throughout each weekend, gain points based on their performance and compete against Rugby Sevens fans from across the world on the global leaderboard.