Forget about union and league – sevens is the fittest form of rugby, as I found out

Well-lubricated, fancy-dressed revellers in the notoriously riotous South Stand will inevitably be targeted by cameramen when the 42nd edition of the Hong Kong Sevens kicks off this Friday. Forget the wig-wearing, beer-swilling ‘legends’ at the sport’s mecca, though; the real heroes are the players themselves. And, boy, do they deserve the utmost respect for their commitment to putting on an entertaining show.

That’s because, of all the various games one can play with an oval ball, I can vouch that sevens is far and away the most physically demanding, having spent an afternoon training and toiling with members of the high-flying England team at Twickenham.

Don’t believe me? For a second opinion just ask Sonny Bill Williams, arguably the world’s greatest ever multi-sport athlete. Or how about the raft of other megastars from 15-a-side rugby who tried, and failed, to keep pace ahead of last August’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, when sevens made its Games bow?

It’s absurd to regard Williams – a two-time Rugby World Cup winner, occasional professional heavyweight boxer (unbeaten in seven fights), and former rugby league international – as not fit enough to master any sport. But it took over six months of brutal graft to complete his transition to sevens; and even then he only just got the nod to be part of New Zealand’s 12-man squad in Brazil.

Other stellar names of the longer version of the game, including Quade Cooper, Bryan Habana, and Nick Cummings, missed out Olympic selection by some distance, having fluffed their auditions. In the pre-Rio tournaments they featured in on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the talented trio were made to look as though they were running in slow motion, or “hitting the fudge” as it’s known on the circuit.

Williams was 30 – and therefore still at the peak of his considerable sporting powers – when he announced within weeks of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time, in late October 2015, that he was giving sevens his full attention and eyeing a podium finish in Rio. His headline-stealing switch exploded the sport’s profile, and when the 33-cap All Blacks centre made his Sevens Series debut last January, in Wellington, he was expected to sparkle immediately.

There was one signature high-risk, out–of–the–tackle offload which led to the winning try for his team in the final against South Africa; but there were two similar attempts which were costly errors. Moreover, Williams was obviously struggling to match the fitness of his new teammates and lagged behind play despite only being afforded limited game time. That his initial performance was so incredibly disappointing surprised many viewers, though it shocked neither those in the know, nor the hardened players. “I left my lungs out there on the pitch,” he offered in a pitch-side interview with an embarrassed, haunted look.

In April last year, at the Paris Sevens, I spoke with George Gregan, the most-capped Australian Test player and HSBC Sevens Series ambassador, about Williams’ fitness struggles. “Sonny’s lost about five kilograms to get himself ‘sevens fit’,” the legendary scrum-half said. “Sevens fitness is on another level. You’ve got to have that ability just to start a match at a really high intensity and speed level, and finish a game the same way – that’s not easy. After 90 seconds you pretty much know that you’re going to reach the lactate threshold, and then you’ve just got to deal with it, hang on, trust your technique and have the mental resolve to get through it. That first game of sevens hits you like no other experience you’ve had before.

“It’s all about VO2 max [the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise], and the ability to work at a really high heart rate. Some people are predisposed to having a good VO2 max, but sevens is no place for a plodder. Top players can perform quickly, with a high level of skill and accuracy, and then repeat it, and deal with the stresses of being fatigued – that’s what different to 15-a-side rugby and makes sevens a unique sort of fitness.”

It was only on the eve of the Olympics, some seven months after Wellington, that Williams was confident that he had finally reached the requisite standard. “The fitness levels are [now] up where they should be for sevens,” he said before suffering a long-term injury in his first game of the competition, cruelly. New Zealand finished outside the medals, in fifth, and with Williams’ Olympic dream shattered there was no surprise when his return to the 15-a-side variant was confirmed soon afterwards (after all, there’s a British and Irish Lions tour for the gong-hungry star to contest this summer).

James Rodwell leads a media team on a sevens training day
James Rodwell leads a media team on a sevens training day

Williams’ sevens travails were at the front of my mind when I rather sadistically signed the waiver form to participate in a training session with three of England’s top players – James Rodwell, Philip Burgess, and Ruaridh McConnochie, who all won Olympic silver medals with Team GB – at the Rugby Football Union’s headquarters in late March.

As I tugged on my workout gear (which had helpfully shrunk in the wash, making it skintight – perfect!) in Changing Room Five, located in the bowels of the stadium, I thought: “If sevens fitness had turned the lights out on Sonny, how dark is this experience going to be for me? Besides, any ‘gas’ I once possessed has long emptied since I last played rugby, some dozen years ago. These days I possess the turning circle of a ferry.

Wafting away the smells of nervous energy emanating from the loos, our group was ushered to the gym, where Rodwell, Burgess, and McConnochie greeted us, grinning. “We want to give you guys an idea of what we do on a day-to-day basis, with the aim of being the best athletes we can for the Sevens Series, which finishes here at Twickenham in May,” started 6’5” Rodwell. “We can’t do the full-contact rugby training with you, so we decided the best thing to do was put you through a bit of fitness.”

Following a 15-minute warm up – hamstrings and legs; upper body and shoulders; and some foam rolling – Rodwell, the most capped England sevens player of all time, explained with a smirk that we would be going outside, on to the hallowed ground, to perform the ‘Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test’. This is effectively the old-school bleep (or beep) test: run out 20 metres to a cone, turn and sprint back, and beat the beep; but this version has a five-metre run-off area and 10-second pause between the gradual speed increases. Two strikes and you’re out.

Oliver Pickup (bright T-shirt and blue shorts) during the Yo-Yo challenge
Oliver Pickup (bright T-shirt and blue shorts) during the Yo-Yo challenge

“As England players we do this every few weeks,” said red-headed Rodwell, “and basically if you don’t reach level 19 – or a pace of 19 kilometres per hour – then you’ll be forced to do it the following week, and made to undergo extra fitness sessions to catch up. Yo-yos are fantastic for acceleration, speed and endurance – all vital for sevens.”

Tom Mitchell, England’s captain and playmaker, currently holds the Yo-Yo record, McConnochie told me; just before Christmas, he managed to hit level 22. “My best is 19.5,” the 6’3″ 25-year-old back revealed. “I really want to make 20 – that’s the golden mark – but it’s always the shorter players, like Mitch [5’10”], who do well at this, because they can turn more easily.”

I lined up alongside six other journos. The first few rounds felt fairly comfortable; then the pace quickened, and our first elimination came at 14.3. By 16.1, with a taste of blood in the back of my mouth and my legs beginning to wobble, I “hit the fudge” and was dismissed. Considering it was the first – and most likely last – time I had graced the venerated Twickenham turf, I was satisfied to finish a reasonable third in our press party.

I was still trying to catch my breath when beanie-hat wearing Burgess pointed us back through the stadium to the gym, where the 28-year-old forward had mapped out a gruelling eight-station circuit. “Highlights include the TRX row, the prowler push, the sled pull, and medicine ball slams,” he said. “You’ll buddy up and it’s not full out; you will have 30 seconds on, with 30 seconds off, but supporting your mate. Encouragement is key.

“One circuit is just four minutes of work, so give it everything. A game of sevens is only 14 minutes long, so we need to give it our all in these sessions, and make sure there is no ‘comfort zoning’, as we call it.”

The exercises were as hellish as one can imagine. My Sonny Bill Williams moment of extreme fatigue and inelegance arrived as I grunted and shunted the heavy duty ‘battle ropes’. “Good form is better than repetitions,” Burgess shouted to me across the gym. Cheers, Phil.

Oliver hits the fudge
Oliver hits the fudge

We only had time to finish one circuit, thankfully, but Rodwell said that he and his teammates would normally push on and complete three before hitting the showers. “We train four days a week, with Wednesday our recovery day, when there is an option to have a soft-tissue massage at the Lensbury, our team base,” he continued. “Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are typically lighter training sessions compared to Mondays. The rugby will still be really hard, but the weights won’t be as heavy.

“On Mondays we have a speed session first thing, and then we will go straight into the gym for a weights session. From there we will go back out to the pitch to do some skills, all before lunch. And in the afternoon we will do a full-pitch session for about 90 minutes – it’s a mixture of set plays we want to work on and the full-on smash, which is part of rugby.”

I didn’t see an oval ball all afternoon, and left Twickenham shattered, though with an even greater respect for the super-fit England sevens players.

Ahead of Hong Kong, Amor’s team is second, behind South Africa, in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings, after six rounds. The tenth and last stop is back at Twickenham on May 20 and 21 – and tickets are still available. It will be a grand day out, especially if England, who haven’t won at Twickenham since 2009, are still in contention. Whatever the case, the action on the pitch is sure to be more entertaining then anything you spy in the stands.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in April 2017

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Oliver Pickup

Multi-award-winning writer, content editor, ghostwriter, and TV and radio commentator (and occasional illustrator), specialising in technology, blockchain, startups, business, sport and culture. Founder of Pickup Media Limited. Interviewer of death row prisoners, legendary athletes, influential leaders, tech trendsetters, and cultural pioneers. By-lined in every English newspaper. Contributor to dozens of multinational publications.

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