Sevens stage proves good breeding ground
March 14, 2007
"It was day one of the Dubai Sevens in December 2005 when Mike Friday, the manager of the England team, suggested we take a walk to one of the back pitches where St George" - John Taylor reports for scrum.com
It was day one of the Dubai Sevens in December 2005 when Mike Friday, the manager of the England team, suggested we take a walk to one of the back pitches where St George, a side used by England to blood young Sevens talent, was playing in the international invitation tournament.
'That's the one we're really interested in,' he said pointing to David Strettle. It was soon evident that Strettle, who had been plying his trade at unfashionable Rotherham, had pace and power but even more important was his judgement.
Ugo Monye was the hot property on the Sevens scene at the time and Tom Varndell was tipped to be the next Superstar. Monye was more powerful, Varndell was the quickest but it was soon evident that Strettle was already the most accomplished rugby player. Whilst the others repeatedly took the wrong options and ran down blind alleys to the frustration of colleagues and coaches alike he instinctively knew when to go for it and when to keep the ball alive.
Friday certainly liked what he saw and introduced him into the full IRB Sevens squad for the next two tournaments in New Zealand and the USA. Strettle made an immediate impact at the higher level, Harlequins were alerted and, spotting the potential, made possibly their most cost effective signing of the season - he was on his way.
Meanwhile, back on the main pitch in Dubai, Mathew Tait was beginning to show why he was so highly thought of. He had played the previous year and had looked totally out of his depth - even the most beer saturated Sevens fan could have told you he was not ready to play against Wales the following February.
By February 2006 his confidence was back and he produced a virtuoso performance against Fiji in the final of the Los Angeles Sevens to destroy the Fijian prodigy, William Ryder, who has taken over from Waisale Serevi as the most exciting property on the Sevens scene. Suddenly, you knew what all the fuss was about - he was the real thing after all.
Dubai 2005 also gave us the first sighting of James Hook who has mede such an impact for Wales this season. When Dai Rees, the Welsh coach, told me he was 'the next Barry John' I was sceptical but he might just be right.
Pat Sanderson and Tom Rees first came to prominence on the Sevens circuit and I mention them all to emphasise the role Sevens has in developing players for the fifteen-a-side game. It is not just a festival of running rugby - skills are put to the ultimate test because there is no hiding place - the short version of the game highlights all weaknesses. England, like New Zealand, have always used it as a development tool and while the fans are partying the players know they are under the microscope.
A homage to Sevens might seem a strange way to preview the climax to this year's Six Nations but for me the tournament has been all about the emergence of exciting young players. It may be too little too late for the World Cup but it has lifted the spirits of all those depressed rugby watchers who were becoming more and more depressed about the state of Northern Hemisphere rugby.
Brian Ashton seems to have that precious commodity that Andy Robinson just could not buy - luck!
Just when everybody is hailing the return of the Messiah he gets a minor injury, England are forced to go for youth, and it pays off in spades. Jonny Wilkinson has gone from being the only option to, possibly, number three in the pecking order.
If Ashton were as bold as some people would like us to believe he would have selected Shane Geraghty against Wales. He has neatly sidestepped the Wilkinson dilemma by giving him more time to recover from his hamstring strain - 'No Jonny, I think we should make sure it's absolutely 100%, you mustn't rush it' - but he has stuck with Toby Flood.
Now, it would have been harsh to have dropped Flood to the bench but Geraghty showed enough for me (and Jonathan Davies who is not a bad judge of fly-halves) when he came on to have started this week. I've watched him a lot this season and he has such pace that he can bring a whole new attacking dimension to the position.
He is certainly not the finished article yet but, with Wales in disarray and the World Cup looming, this was a great chance to give him the chance to really take charge of a game from the start. Ashton's luck is such that it might still happen because Flood remains doubtful with a dead leg - 'Are you sure Toby? I don't want you taking any chances.'
Whether it is Flood or Geraghty I believe they should be up against Hook. He too has the ability to add in some attacking flair from fly-half and Wales need that even more than England. Stephen Jones is steady and experienced but as this Six Nations has shown that is not enough unless you have a pack which can dominate as England's used to.
After last week's upsets I expect the predictable this weekend - England to beat Wales, Ireland to beat Italy and France to beat Scotland with Ireland nicking the title on points difference.