Ollie Phillips, an IRB Sevens Player of the Year and a former England Sevens captain, spoke exclusively to Pundit Arena about his own playing days, the state of sevens as a sport and the exciting future that Olympics inclusion brings.
As a player who first made his name as a leading light of the sevens format of the game and then went on to star in a European Cup final for Stade Francais, Phillips explained that sevens is really taking off as a sport in its own right, but also hopes it still retains links with 15-man rugby:
“What I think would be tragic is if it loses its affiliation with the game. But with where it’s now going it’s fast becoming a sport in its own right. You have to look at, for example, the investment two weeks ago of Alibaba – investing £100 million into rugby in China. A large proportion of that is going to be into the sevens infrastructure. Whether investing in fifteens or sevens, it only benefits the sport.”
He emphasises the power that sevens has to help develop the potential of tier 2 and tier 3 nations.
“There’s huge incentive to grow in sevens because you can create the spectacle, you can create the carnival but also you’ve got a medium for promoting the international side whether that be at the World Sevens series, World Cup or Commonwealth Games, but it gives that national traction, that national pull as well.”
For a team like China, or Olympics hosts Brazil, sevens provides a real opportunity to test themselves on the world stage. The passion, ebullience and enthusiasm Phillips has for the future of the sport where he made his name is clear:
“I don’t think the Olympics has got anything like it. I don’t think it’s got anything where it’s back-to-back action, spread over two or three days, a real frenzied party and carnival atmosphere that has all the best players on show.”
He makes a good point. In one extreme, in the space of a few seconds the 100 metres is done, in the other, the hockey can drag on for what seems an eternity. Sevens provides a happy medium and it’s entertaining.
“It’s relentless action, end-to-end. The sevens is a continual frenzy which everyone can get excited about.”
Sevens in the Olympics will probably see a number of big name 15s stars taking part, with the likes of Quade Cooper, Sonny Bill Williams and Bryan Habana already vying for squad places.
“If they don’t cut the mustard they’re not going to get picked,” says Phillips. “I think Sonny Bill will as he’s now starting to show his true quality as a player. At the start he was struggling to make an impact and to get a grip with the game of sevens but now his fitness is there and his recognition of how the game works and what his role is. He’s now playing very, very well for New Zealand.”
But if it’s taken this long for someone like Sonny Bill to adapt, have Team GB left it too late to start picking big name sevens players?
“That’s the eternal question. My gut feeling is yes but equally there’s so much talent to come into the squad and into the side and I guess the beauty of sevens is that upskilling and educating good quality players onto how to play the game can be achieved. It’s not all doom and gloom, dead and buried, but it is a big ask.
“A lot of the experience of these big name players have been playing a year on the circuit, but not just that but in terms of fitness, spatial awareness of what’s going on around you – all of that is instrumental and I’m not sure whether you can get that in three months, but it’s also exciting.”
If Team GB is going to go down the route of selecting players from the other form of the game, then there are some key names Phillips would like to see picked:
“I’d love to see Christian Wade; he would be outstanding. He’s already played sevens before and he was a huge threat; he can be now. Jack Clifford would be outstanding as well, a big asset for the squad and for the team. Someone like Tom Croft and his speed and George North could be highly effective.
Some people have been making calls for Sam Burgess who could be lethal but what I think you need is people who are either going to be dominant at the breakdown or aerially, one or the other – that’s what you want from your forwards – do that hard yakka. Then you want a playmaker up the middle, someone like Cipriani or Joe Simpson, maybe Slade from Exeter, these really good footballers.”
For a number of important names in XVs rugby it will mean some pretty difficult choices between playing for their country this summer or fighting for Olympic gold.
“It’s a tough call for them as a player but from a personal perspective there is no greater sporting spectacle than an Olympic games. Part of that is represent your nation, it’s just a huge opportunity that realistically is never ever going to come around again. Also, I think playing well over there and excelling only stands you in good stead for a future England career anyway. If you play well and win Olympic gold I’m pretty sure that’s going to put you in the shop window.”
But Phillips is keen to emphasise that in no way should superstar XVs players come to overshadow the core players who live-and-breathe sevens every day.
“Of course there would be resentment for somebody who has played for four years with the hope of getting in, but equally from the game’s perspective they can’t make it about the players coming in, just for futureproofing the game. If you herald superstar XV players and the focus is all on them coming to the Olympics, they’re going to leave at the end of it.
“You need to champion those players that are going to be standout players but also going to be an integral part of the game moving forward. So from a GB perspective, Tom Mitchell, Dan Norton or Dan Bibby or James Rodwell – if he can make it back fit in time – those are the sort of players you want to focus the real attention on. From a media perspective, if you’re PR savvy you want to focus on them because they’re the future of the game in general.”
Yet as the Olympics fast approaches, all four home nations teams are struggling to compete with the southern hemisphere giants, so what sets them apart? Phillips is blunt:
“Quality of players. That is the difference; in the structuring of the contracts and the agreements that are in place with the unions and the teams. In New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, the teams are owned by and the players contracted to the union, in the UK they’re not. Therefore the clubs are not accountable to the unions. For example, Sonny Bill is playing sevens this year – sorry Canterbury, they’re not going to be very happy, but ultimately there’s nothing they can do. [England and GB coach] Simon Amor’s got central contracts but the amount of money and the calibre of players he has access to are considerably restricted.”
Finally, from a career that has encompassed so much in both forms of the games, Phillips explains his best moments:
“There’s something special and unique about both. Playing for your country takes on a totally new perspective, but equally playing in a European Cup final in front of a partisan crowd packed out to the rafters is something I love. Still, my greatest moment to date is a sevens one: Winning the Wellington Sevens against New Zealand.”
Let us hope now that Team GB can emulate that success in Rio in the summer.
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