Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

England Sevens Players’ Tough Road to Tokyo

Posted on 16 November 2020 by Lewis Pangratiou

The RFU’s move to cut the funding of the England Sevens programme in August has caused a bit of a stir. Yes, they have suffered enormously as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic – with recent estimated losses in the region of £145m – but the decision still seems drastic, especially considering they are the richest union in world rugby.

It means that no England Sevens team will be a part of any revised 2020/21 world series and the situation could hinder the players’ dreams of representing Team GB in the rescheduled 2021 Olympics.

With the start of the competition just a matter of months away, the players have been forced to fend for themselves in what is an intricate battle against time – one they might not even win.

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Experienced star Heather Fisher, who has set her sights on wearing the GB shirt one more time before retiring, expressed her disappointment towards the RFU:

“No-one expected the programme to just vanish like it just did, across the guys’ and the girls’ programme. It’s been really difficult. Players have been pretty angry, frustrated, upset [and] feel let down by the RFU.

“They made decisions without really thinking about consequences. I feel a lot of players are hurt and feel lost.”

Fisher also explained that there is less medical provision now, meaning that players have been unable to push themselves to the same limits in training out of fear that they might get injured. That anxiety has challenged Fisher mentally, making it difficult for her to stay focussed.

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The idea that athletes are made ‘behind the scenes’ might seem clichéd but it’s still true. Investment means everything operates more efficiently. So, it isn’t surprising to hear that Fisher has felt damaged by the substantial change to her training.

And in addition to everything that’s been going on in the background, the players have had to come to terms with being the only side to have their funding cut. Meanwhile, despite the pandemic’s growing unpredictability, their greatest competitors still have their respective programmes.

Fisher admitted that this casts serious doubt over any potential medal chances should they get the opportunity to play in Tokyo:

“Yeah totally [it could affect our chances]. Totally because the rest of the world are starting to go back. The rest of the world have still got their programmes. The rest of the world have still been training.

“I understand that COVID is obviously very different across the whole globe, but no other unions got rid of their Sevens programme and that’s what’s crazy about this. Of course it could affect our chances.”

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However, this group are determined to achieve their goal and are doing everything to combat their colossal off-the-field issues.

“We just make sure we keep talking as a programme and keep reminding ourselves that Tokyo’s still ahead of us, there’s still a dream out there, there’s still a road to travel and there’s still a journey to go on, it’s just a matter of when,” said Fisher.

Despite such powerful optimism, they are still in an extremely difficult position. England men’s player Tom Emery was reluctant to comment on the RFU but did explain what the players have been doing to tackle their financial problems:

“We released a crowd funding page to help us get started. We are also seeking potential investors or sponsors to help us run a full-time programme as soon as possible but in a way that is sustainable for the future of the sport.

“We as a Sevens squad will continue to work hard to pursue a full-time programme in the near-future.

“Any support to our crowdfunding page would be, and is still, hugely appreciated. The support thus far has been amazing,” he said.

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Positively though, Fisher thinks that independence from the RFU could actually benefit the programme in the distant future because players will be able to take matters into their own hands.

There’s no telling how this story will end just yet. In the meantime, let’s appreciate what is an unrivalled desire to play sport at the highest level and further hope that Team GB will have two Sevens teams out in Tokyo.